The box behind the BCHF find

The world of livestock genetic exploration can often resemble the “Chicken or the Egg?” question. Which came first, the genetic discovery, or the ability to measure and identify the genes?

In the case of the recent discovery of a likely genetic component to bovine congestive heart failure (BCHF)—reported on last week’s cover—the technology existed first but was very helpful in the process of making the discovery.

The research, conducted by researchers at USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC)  in Clay Center, NE and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), identified 21 different genes that showed association with BCHF, two of which were particularly strongly associated.

Genetic factors found in feedlot brisket disease

“Once we had the associated genes in hand, we wanted to begin validating the two best markers immediately because animals are dying every day from this disease,” said Michael Heaton, USMARC scientist and co-principle investigator on the project, in a statement.

“Our aim was to use a platform that allowed us to transfer the technology without delay. Working closely with MatMaCorp scientists, we developed our first targeted genetic test for BCHF in one week. Soon after, we began validating our results in newly identified BCHF cases, and subsequently we identified high- and low-risk calves in a crop of more than a thousand from a severely affected herd.”

Dr. Abraham Oommen, MatMaCorp founder and president, told WLJ that they had developed this targeted genetic testing technology used by the researchers—called the Solas 8—with veterinarians in mind.

“The veterinary clinic still is not in the genomics business,” he observed. “That was my target; how do we bring them into this business?”

The Solas 8—what Oommen frequently called “our little box”—is a portable, targeted genetic testing system designed to be used by non-experts.

“Our device is tiny,” Oommen described. “It’s a very low throughput device. You can only process eight samples at a time. It was made for the small veterinary clinic, the small operations where every day you get some animals through and you want to test something. You can test on a feedlot, a breeding company, or a family farm. Anybody should be able to use this—it’s a simple device, nothing is frozen, reagents are all dried, and there’s no lab tools necessary.”

Oommen explained to WLJ someone who can comfortably use a modern cell phone should be able to use it. He did stress that the system does require user interaction. The person running the test extracts the DNA from a sample, combines the DNA with the targeted testing reagents, and can watch the reactions take place in real time, either on the device’s screen or on a linked cell phone.

Oommen said the company did not want the process to be a mysterious “black box” situation, but instead they aimed to develop something that would allow veterinarians to get the staff educated about genomics, in a hands-on way, and demystify the process.

Genetic factors found in feedlot brisket disease

“That whole education part of it is baked into the system as part of it so you learn it rather than blindly trusting a box where you put in a sample and close the door and out it spits an answer.”

Oommen acknowledged that the livestock industry and the wider world of genetics testing has seen claims of easy-to-use genetic testing systems before and that there’s a lot of skepticism around such products.

“We didn’t want to make a big hype about things,” he said. “We wanted to make something that works and then talk about it. So that’s why we did it very quietly and we did it with people we trusted and respected and that includes the folks at the Meat Animal Research Center.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ editor

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