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Preg testing technology for producers

The ability to get results without veterinarians or specialized equipment coming to farms near no one.

WESTERN PRODUCER — Researchers are working to place some of the complex technology found in veterinary laboratories into handheld devices that will allow producers to more easily diagnose pregnancies in sheep.

The project aims to create a device about the size of a facial tissue box that will take blood samples and test them to predict things such as the number of lambs carried by ewes, said Susan Markus, a livestock research scientist at Alberta’s Lakeland College.

If the device can achieve an accuracy of 80 percent and an adoption rate of 50 percent, it “could net a return of up to approximately $50,000 per year for Canadian sheep owners,” said a statement by the Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) agency in Alberta.

However, the project could also act as a template that could significantly reduce the cost of developing handheld devices for other species of livestock, it said.

“Discussions with both large feedlot and cow-calf producers and large pharmaceutical companies indicate applicability to other species and other uses also exist. There is immediate need in the (Alberta) feedlot industry to detect pregnant feeder heifers for abortion, thus saving drug use and associated costs.”

Markus said there is a chronic shortage of veterinarians in Western Canada who can visit livestock on farms. The resulting delays are aggravated by the fact that samples must be sent to laboratories for testing, with producers forced to wait for results, she said.

She was told by veterinarians attending a recent field day at Lakeland College the situation is even worse for sheep producers because many veterinarians are more familiar with cattle and horses. Due to their location or flock size, such farmers also have difficulty justifying the expense of accessing people qualified to use ultrasound equipment for pregnancies, said the RDAR statement.

“We first started looking at this research because it’s basically part of point-of-care devices,” said Markus. “So, if we can have diagnostics on the farm that deliver results in real time quickly for us, then it actually allows the rancher or the producer to get that piece of knowledge and be able to manage the animals a lot quicker.”

The project includes Lakeland College, Alberta Lamb Producers and Ontario Sheep Farmers, with funding from Alberta Innovates and RDAR, she said. It aims to create a handheld device for sheep producers that will cost about $250 and be durable enough to withstand the typical conditions of a working farm for at least two years, she added.

It is expected to improve lamb survivability and reduce pregnancy-related illness and difficult births among ewes, said the RDAR statement. “Management advantages in saved feed and ewe maintenance costs and improved genetic selection will be had through the ability of flock managers to both identify culls and/or re-breed open ewes for other markets,” it said.

Markus said producers originally expected a pregnancy test for sheep could be as simple as the test strips that measure the glucose levels in the blood of humans affected by diabetes.

“I said, ‘no, no, this is much more complicated,’ because there’s a number of metabolites involved to get the diagnosis of pregnancy and then for litter size, and then how you interpret them … and then the software and all the computer engineering to get the results out to you.”

She said the project includes a research team headed by David Wishart, a biological and computing sciences professor at the University of Alberta and leader of the Wishart Node of the Metabolomics Innovation Centre.

“The whole part of this research is basically simplifying all those steps and miniaturizing the complex lab equipment that would be required to provide the diagnostics to you.”

For example, although some ranchers know how to collect blood samples, most of them have never done it, she said. “We want the blood collection process to be simplified, and there’s some really neat things out there that we’re working with.”

It includes technology that Markus likened to plastic leeches that can be attached to sheep to automatically take blood samples. This approach borrows from work already being developed for use on human infants, she said.

“And so, you don’t need to be there trying to find the vein and do that piece of it because the device is doing that for you… it’s painless and can work quite well. It just depends on what the diagnostic endpoint is that you want.”

Other steps include cleaning up and processing the blood for use in colorimetry or electro-chemical tests of metabolites, with the results analyzed using sensors and software, she said. The device will likely be linked via Bluetooth to a mobile app to allow producers to see the final diagnosis, she added.

Researchers plan to test the device on sheep this fall at the Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production at Olds College in Alberta, said Markus. Due to the fact it might reveal the need for changes, this step in the development process could take at least a year or more, she said.

“If everything works well there and it seems robust and suitable under those conditions, then we’ll look to the commercialization phase after that.”

Point-of-care devices to test and diagnose livestock have only become possible within about the last five years, said Markus. “And there’s a lot of challenges to it because there’s a reason why complex laboratory equipment exists — it’s best suited for the job,” she said.

“So, to go to this phase that we’re working on to get it smaller and quicker and easier — not have to follow a bunch of laboratory protocols before you can actually make it function correctly­­ — all those things take a lot of time and effort to get them to work well.”




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