U researchers get $8.8 million to study animal diseases

Targets include Johne’s disease in cattle and the illness once called “mystery swine disease.”

Emily Ayshford

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service awarded the University on Wednesday the two largest grants it has ever given for animal disease research.

The $8.8 million in grants will be used for research on Johne’s disease in cattle and Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, or PRRS, in swine.

“These grants are a testament to leadership at the University of Minnesota,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who helped present an oversized check to the University on Wednesday at the Cargill Building in St. Paul.

Johne’s disease is a bacterial infection that affects cattle intestinal tracts. The bacterium that causes the disease is found at approximately 22 percent of all U.S. dairy farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s an incredible threat to the dairy industry,” said Vivek Kapur, medical school microbiology professor and project director for the research.

University researchers will use the grant money to help determine control and prevention measures for the disease.

Seventy-two collaborators from 23 institutions will also contribute to the project.

PRRS, once called “mystery swine disease” because of the lack of knowledge about the syndrome, is a respiratory disease in pigs and can result in reproductive failure in sows.

With national economic losses estimated at $600 million a year from the disease, Rodney Brown, deputy undersecretary for research, education, and economics at the USDA, said PRRS is the “most significant swine disease worldwide.”

Michael Murtaugh, College of Veterinary Medicine professor and principal investigator for the research, said the disease has “destroyed farm families for 15 years.”

Researchers hope to understand how the disease spreads, how to detect the infection and how to prevent it.

The grants will be distributed over four years.