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Project to help combat bioterrorism

National database provides key information for diagnosing animal disease outbreaks

Ames Lab associate Gary Osweiler has helped compile a database of information on a number of deadly animal diseases in order to make the information more readily accessible to veterinarians, diagnosticians, and law-enforcement personnel.

A rural veterinarian gets a call from a local farmer who says several of his cattle have died suddenly and dozens of others appear sick. Hurrying to the farm, the vet finds that none of the symptoms exhibited match anything he's seen before. Sitting down at the farmer's computer, the vet logs onto a Web site. In minutes, he gets information that helps him narrow the diagnosis, tells him what tissue samples are needed to confirm the disease, how to handle the samples, and where to send them. Until the results come back, the farm is quarantined, and the dead and dying animals disposed of to prevent the spread of a deadly pathogen to epidemic proportions.

Though bioterrorism may have sounded far-fetched a couple of months ago, it's all too easy to believe in light of the recent anthrax attacks in Florida, New York, and Washington, D.C. But thanks to scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory, the nation's veterinarians will soon have access to Web-based information as in the scenario described above.

Formally known as Identification and Documentation of Currently Available Veterinary Science Resources, the project utilizes expertise at the Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory to compile an online database of existing information on the most deadly animal diseases that could damage or wipe out the livestock industry, and, as in the case of anthrax, infect the human population. The database also includes a listing of recognized experts for each of those agents and the diagnostic facilities currently testing for those diseases.

"It provides an invaluable resource to those on the front lines in defending against a bioterrorist threat," says Ames Lab associate scientist Gary Osweiler. "It will help veterinarians more quickly diagnose potentially deadly diseases, which in turn may help stop the spread of those agents." Osweiler is director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at ISU and co-principal investigator on the project with ISU professor of veterinary medicine Walter Hyde. The database is particularly valuable for identifying biological agents not common to a particular area. Though it's become a household word in the last month, Osweiler said that anthrax in livestock was last diagnosed in Iowa some 15-20 years ago. Iowa livestock veterinarians rarely see it or its symptoms, yet the disease is somewhat common in the Southwest, where there are large concentrations of sheep. Similarly, those veterinarians in Arizona and New Mexico have little experience with some of the swine or cattle diseases common in Iowa.

"Because there are some diseases they just don't come across very often, vets typically post questions on list serves, asking if anyone is familiar with a certain disease and how to diagnose it," Osweiler says. "The data we've gathered puts that kind of information right in front of them and provides them with other resources, such as what samples need to be taken, how the samples should be handled and the location of the nearest diagnostic lab," he adds.

So far, the database contains information on 14 of the most dangerous zoonotic disease agents, those that pose a risk to both animals and humans. While most of the basic information comes from published veterinary medicine journals, it also contains practical information gathered through a survey circulated by the project team. Diagnostic labs around the country provided input on the diseases as well as the types of information needed and the format in which it will be presented. To date, more than half of the labs have participated, although Osweiler hopes that recent events boost lab and diagnostician involvement. He plans to host a conference in December to demonstrate the database and promote participation in the project.

The online database is currently undergoing testing, but once it is fully operational, it will be accessible through a secure government Web site. Participating laboratories and diagnosticians also will be able to update information online, making it easier to keep information as current and valuable as possible.

"Our biggest concern is keeping the information current," says David Baldwin, director of Ames Laboratory's Environmental and Protection Sciences Program. "To be of real value, the information must be constantly reviewed, added to and updated. This database is an invaluable tool, and we're confident that additional funding will be secured to make that (the review) happen."

The research project has been funded over the past two years by the DOE through the Office of Nonproliferation and National Security. The original concept came about through discussions of potential collaborative projects between Ames Laboratory and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to Baldwin and Osweiler, the FBI has continued interest in the project. There has also been interest from the Food and Drug Administration about expanding the database to include information related to possible chemical attacks on livestock through contaminated feed.


by Kerry Gibson


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