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December 22, 2020 – Despite the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, our funded animal health researchers forged ahead in 2020, working through restrictions at their facilities, in the field and with their personnel. Many spent their time laying the groundwork for future projects, as well as preparing and analyzing data and/or samples collected pre-pandemic. Others were called into action, especially infectious disease and vaccine experts, lending their expertise toward finding answers in vaccine development and virus biology.

Slowly, restrictions are lifting, vaccines are on their way, and more and more animal health researchers are primed to start their projects once again.

Here’s a peek at some of our funded studies that will be kicking off in 2021:

Oral Cancer 

Oral squamous cell carcinoma is a devastating and aggressive cancer in cats; the average survival time after diagnosis and treatment is only three months. University of Utrecht researchers developed a novel strategy called nanobody-targeted photodynamic therapy, which uses tiny nanoparticles as a drug delivery system. Once the particles are in place within the tumor, they’re activated with specialized light. This therapy is minimally invasive and targets the oral tumors directly, sparing surrounding healthy tissues. The team hopes this therapy will improve the overall survival and quality of life for client-owned cats with OSCC and can eventually be extended to other cancers and other species. This project is slated to begin in February 2021.

Heart Disease

Another study will be using CRISPR technology – a revolutionary tool in gene therapy. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a highly precise gene-editing tool that can correct a mutation in the genetic code to treat specific diseases. University of Florida researchers will assess the feasibility of using CRISPR to correct damaging mutations in heart cells isolated from Doberman pinschers with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). DCM is the third most frequent type of heart disease in dogs, and Doberman pinschers are a high-risk breed for developing this condition. If successful, findings will inform future studies toward the development of gene therapies for dogs with DCM and other heart diseases.

Deadly Parasite

Morris Animal Foundation is funding two new projects on an emerging tick-borne parasite in cats, Cytauxzoon felis. C. felis was previously found in the southern United States but is slowly moving north as infected ticks spread to new regions. No vaccine currently exists for cytauxzoonosis, the disease caused by C. felis, making strict tick control the only available measure to prevent this deadly infection. North Carolina State University researchers are attempting to develop a novel culture system for C. felis to better study the disease. Oklahoma State University researchers are developing a unique model system using white blood cells of affected cats. Both systems are essential tools for developing much-needed diagnostics, treatments and vaccines to helps save cats from this emerging disease as it continues to spread across the United States.

Pain Mangement

The Ohio State University researchers will conduct a clinical trial evaluating extracorporeal shockwave therapy (ESWT) to treat lower back pain in dogs. ESWT is a noninvasive therapy that uses high-frequency acoustical waves to increase blood flow to areas of pain. Studies in humans and horses show significant improvement in back pain after using ESWT, but this therapy has not yet been evaluated in dogs. Researchers will assess the use of ESWT in client-owned dogs suffering with lower back pain. If treatment is successful, findings from this pilot project will inform larger ESWT clinical trials in dogs with lower back pain. Enrollment for this study will begin early 2021. Details will be available on The Ohio State University website when the trial opens.

Canine Distemper in African Wild Dogs

In the past three years, researchers recorded six separate fatal outbreaks of canine distemper virus (CDV) in endangered African wild dogs, nearly wiping out the largest population in Kenya. Previous Foundation-funded research showed CDV cannot easily be controlled by vaccinating domestic dogs, a major source of infection. This suggests wild dogs themselves might need to be vaccinated in areas where CDV risk is high for this species. As of now, no safe and effective vaccination protocol exists for African wild dogs. In this newly launched project, Zoological Society of London researchers in Great Britain will be assessing several different vaccination strategies to provide preventive guidelines to better manage deadly CDV spillover in African wild dogs to help save the species.

And so much more . . .

The Foundation currently is funding more than 150 animal health studies. We recently approved funding for eight more horse studies, covering a wide range of health topics from colic to asthma to cancer. Late this year, we closed our 2020 wildlife request for proposals and received nearly 200 grant applications. These applications now will make their way to our Wildlife Scientific Advisory Board for review.

All five of our Australian wildlife projects are up and running, just as bushfire season threatens drought-stricken areas of Australia again. We are actively working with our partners in Australia to facilitate collaboration and sharing of scientific findings, as well as help maximize these projects’ impact to improve the care and rehabilitation of fire-affected wildlife. Lessons learned will help inform other wildlife/wildfire projects.

Giving the gift of health to animals everywhere is what we do at Morris Animal Foundation. Learn more about the impact of our work and what you can do to help animals around the world,  including making a gift to support animal health studies. And now through December 31, our Board of Trustees is matching all donations up to $200,000, doubling your impact so we can fund even more lifesaving research.