U.Va. Researchers Earn Shot at $25M Prize for Innovative Solution to Pet Overpopulation

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Jane Ford:

March 30, 2011 — An interdisciplinary team of University of Virginia researchers has been awarded a shot at a $25 million prize to develop a nonsurgical method for sterilizing cats and dogs.

Comparable to the widely publicized "X Prizes," which encourage scientists to develop innovative solutions to global challenges, the Found Animals Foundation's Michelson Prize in Reproductive Biology seeks "a low-cost, nonsurgical method … to sterilize large populations of cats and dogs and reduce the number of homeless and unwanted animals that are killed each year in shelters."

U.Va. cell biologist John C. Herr and biomedical engineers Kimberly A. Kelly and Brent A. French say they are up to the challenge. They make up one of the 12 teams internationally thus far to have been approved for a Michelson Grant, a steppingstone to the prize designed to foster promising research in this area.

As part of the first phase of the grant, Found Animals Foundation has awarded $200,000 to the U.Va. team. If the project's first-year milestones are met, the investigators may receive additional funding from the foundation to advance their research toward a sterilant product.

"In addition to developing the Michelson Prize, which will be awarded to the team with a viable single-dose treatment for sterilizing dogs and cats, Found Animals Foundation wanted to assist researchers in developing their lead ideas through a highly competitive grant program," said Dr. Shirley D. Johnston, director of scientific research at Found Animals Foundation. "As a recipient of one of these grants, the University of Virginia team joins an elite group of researchers focused on this important goal."

The U.Va. researchers' approach is unique in that it targets immature egg cells, called oocytes, before they mature into eggs that can be fertilized. Specifically, the researchers will use tiny viruses, or phages, to identify a biomarker for these cells and then develop a drug that targets only those cells.

"The challenge laid out in the Michelson Prize, to develop a single-dose sterilant for dogs and cats, is quite daunting from a technical viewpoint," said Herr, director of U.Va.'s Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health and principal investigator on the project. "In our efforts to create a drug that is highly selective in its mechanism of action, to ensure both safety and efficacy in these animals, the U.Va. team has envisioned an entirely new class of biotherapeutic molecules."

This new class of biological drugs, which the researchers have termed "oolysins," may one day have implications for human fertility and contraceptive development.

"This project is a terrific example of the exciting, cross-disciplinary translational research now under way at the University of Virginia," said Miette H. Michie, interim executive director and CEO of the U.Va. Patent Foundation. "Researchers like Drs. Herr, Kelly and French are constantly pushing the traditional boundaries of their disciplines and developing innovations with great impact beyond the lab."

According to Found Animals Foundation, 6 million to 8 million cats and dogs enter U.S. shelters each year, and about half are euthanized. While animal sterilization has long been recognized as an integral solution to the problem of overpopulation, standard surgical techniques of spaying and neutering are impeded by obstacles such as high costs and the need for trained veterinary surgeons and appropriate facilities.

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Morgan Estabrook

U.Va. Innovation