March 1, 2006

New DNA bank at Veterinary College collecting samples to study genetic basis of diseases

As genomics -- the study of genes -- continues to revolutionize the life sciences, Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine has announced the opening of a DNA bank, administered through its Department of Clinical Sciences, to better understand the genetic basis for diseases in many species.

Clinicians at the Cornell University Hospital for Animals will now take blood samples (with owners' written permission) from the thousands of animals they diagnose with known genetic diseases each year. A DNA bank technician will then isolate the DNA, catalog it and freeze it for storage for use by Cornell researchers.

The archive of DNA will help scientists not only develop improved diagnosis and treatment of diseases and new genetic tests for many inherited diseases, but also could possibly lead to new drugs and treatments. The DNA bank will be especially useful to study complex traits, as in types of cancer, where many genes contribute to susceptibility to disease.

"Having a DNA bank here is a no-brainer; we need to be doing it," said Rory Todhunter, associate professor of surgery, who studies the genetics of canine hip dysplasia, a common canine condition treated at Cornell's animal hospital.

He stresses that the DNA will be used for research purposes to further science and that the Cornell animal hospital is "not setting up a genetic testing service" yet.

Cornell already had all the necessary pieces for a DNA archive in place: a hospital with a large caseload of pedigreed animals with clinicians and licensed veterinary technicians to diagnose diseases and draw blood samples and technicians to isolate DNA. Also, preclinical scientists and statisticians at Cornell have the expertise to collate and analyze most of the data.

The DNA bank samples will be used for genetic mapping or linkage analysis, a method for locating disease-causing genes by finding the rough location of a disease-causing gene in relation to genetic markers whose locations are known, and then homing in on the exact location of the problem gene. By locating a problem gene in a dog, for example, scientists could find a homologous gene in humans that causes similar conditions, and vice versa.

While the DNA bank's focus is diseases of the dog, a species whose genome was sequenced in 2005, the archive will represent all animals the hospital treats, including cats, horses, cows, sheep, exotics, wild animals and zoo animals.

"We anticipate banking about 100 DNA samples a week," said Marta Castelhano, a postdoctoral researcher who currently manages the bank's daily operations. "We have recorded 139 diseases already, but this is always being updated." The hospital receives over 5,000 new cases per year and about 15,000 cases overall with repeat visits.

Because of such logistics as storage, "eventually, we are going to have to focus on certain conditions," Todhunter acknowledged. So far, the vast majority of cases, especially in dogs, are cancer related, including lymphoma, followed by liver disease, bleeding disorders, behavioral problems, orthopedic diseases, endocrinopathies and cardiac disease.

Todhunter hopes the bank also will collect tissue and fluids from surgical biopsies and necropsies within a year.

"Once you ID a mutation in the genes, you want to test to see if the mutation is expressed in the tissue," said Todhunter.

The DNA bank is funded by the Department of Clinical Sciences, the Center for Vertebrate Genomics and the Baker Institute for Animal Health, all at Cornell.

To contact the DNA Bank, call (607) 253-3060, or e-mail