Research on Lambs Could Lead to Treatment in Human Infants

Researchers at Iowa State University (ISU) are hoping to contribute to future human treatments for a respiratory virus in infants.

Mark Ackermann, professor in the department of veterinary pathology at ISU, has spent the last 15 years working with lambs to test the effects of two medications for Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), a virus that creates the common cold in human adults but could pose a serious threat to newborns or elderly with weaker immune systems.

While the virus is not typically fatal for infants, it has the potential to cause pneumonia and occasionally hospitalization, and children that get it severely can often end up predisposed to asthma. Ackermann said studying the virus in lambs is similar to human testing, as lambs are close to the same size as infants and the virus replicates well in their lungs.

“We’ve developed this model to study what the virus does from a scientific standpoint and from a biology standpoint, how it gets into cells,” Ackermann said.

The virus has some strands that are created in cattle and sheep, but his team is looking at human strands that can replicate in lambs.

The team is studying the effects of two different drugs, one oral and one acting as a misting nasal medication. Ackermann said his group has also previously teamed up with physicians at the University of Iowa to study one of their own therapeutic treatments.

While similar studies have been tested on rodents in the past, rat and mouse lungs are structured differently and lamb test subjects are a step closer to human clinical trials.

Ackermann said an international RSV conference is held every two years, and this year’s meeting in South Africa begins next month. One of his team members will be presenting their lamb model at the meeting, and he hopes the project can gain some interest there.

While he hopes programs across the world may take notice of his project, Ackermann said it will take some work to upscale the research and establish a larger lamb source.

“For another lab to do this, it takes a lot of learning because there’s a lot of little things you have to do with lambs,” he said. “What we do have is a niche as far as a model that kind of transcends into application of human drugs. In a way, I hope we’re going to have to figure out a way to upscale how we do this.”

Reprinted in part from Ames Tribute