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Domestic Animal Sterliant Under Development
May 2, 2011

An interdisciplinary team of University of Virginia (U.Va.) 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 are one of the 12 international teams which thus far 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.

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.

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