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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Animal & Veterinary

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CVM Researcher Renate Reimschuessel Nominated for Service to America Medal

FDA Veterinarian Newsletter March / April 2008 Volume XXIII, No II

For her work to uncover properties of melamine and related chemicals in pet food that were so dangerous to dogs and cats, Center for Veterinary Medicine scientist Dr. Renate Reimschuessel was named in June as one of 29 “Service to America Medal” finalists and is now a contender for one of the eight medals to be awarded in September.

Dr. Reimschuessel is a research biologist at CVM’s Office of Research. Through her efforts, the Food and Drug Ad-ministration was able to determine how melamine and related chemicals were responsible for kidney damage in dogs and cats.

Partnership for Public Service awards Service to America Medals to federal employees who make significant contribu-tions to the safety, health, and well-being of American citizens.

According to information included in Dr. Reimschuessel’s nomination for the medal, scientists were not able to deter-mine the cause of injury and death to dogs and cats, even though the problem had been linked to pet food contaminated with melamine. Scientists generally rejected the idea that melamine was the problem because they thought the chemical was non-toxic.

When she was called in to help the investigation, Dr. Reimschuessel said she felt as though she were pulling together “pieces of a big, complicated puzzle.” The information she had available came from researchers in CVM, other parts of FDA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and from private companies, practicing veterinarians, and universities. Even pet owners were able to help.

As she studied the problem, she noticed that the literature she reviewed mentioned small changes to kidneys exposed to melamine, a finding not referenced in the most commonly consulted articles on the topic.

Based on her experience and insight, she formulated the theory that melamine was combining with a similar chemical to form crystals in the kidneys of the dogs and cats, often resulting in death of the animals. She also knew that physicians will sometimes see the development of kidney crystals in human chemotherapy patients. The crystals, if prolific, will cause severe kidney damage that can lead to death.

She ultimately proved she was right. Along with melamine, the pet food causing the injuries also contained cyanuric acid or other, related chemicals. The combination of the two chemicals forms crystals in the kidneys of dogs and cats, leading to kidney damage and failure.

She proved her theory by feeding melamine and cyanuric acid to fish. The fish receiving either the melamine or the cyanuric acid alone did not develop kidney crystals. But fish receiving both chemicals developed crystals similar to those seen in the afflicted cats and dogs.

At first, scientists remained skeptical of Dr. Reimschuessel’s finding, largely because they were not finding sufficient crystals in kidneys to cause the problem. Dr. Reimschuessel solved that puzzle, too. The reason pathologists were not seeing many crystals was because most kidney tissue samples were preserved in formalin, as part of a standard labora-tory procedure. Dr. Reimschuessel discovered that formalin dissolves the crystals over time. So, by the time most pa-thologists reviewed the tissue samples, few crystals remained.

Through Dr. Reimschuessel’s work, FDA regulatory officials understood the nature of the problem and knew what they had to do to contain it. Also, Dr. Reimschuessel’s work allowed scientists to develop screening techniques that FDA and pet food manufacturers used to detect melamine in pet food and ingredients, thus further preventing harm to the Nation’s pets.

For her work, Dr. Reimschuessel was also recognized on the floor of the House of Representatives by Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland.

In a statement that appeared in the June 25, 2008, Congressional Record, the official publication of the U.S. Congress, Rep. Ruppersberger said:

“Due to Dr. Reimschuessel’s discovery, the United States has increased surveillance for melamine and related com-pounds in food ingredients. In an effort to identify potential risks to humans, she is continuing to test the effects of mela-mine in chickens, pigs, and fish. Dr. Reimschuessel’s research helped improve the way our government preserves scien-tific specimens and identified the ability of nontoxic compounds to become toxic when combined. These discoveries helped resolve an immediate crisis, and her continued efforts are helping protect the U.S. food supply from tainted imports and toxic chemical combinations.”

According to Partnership for Public Service, the other award finalists includes federal employees with achievements in scientific research, renewable energy, consumer protection, health care, tsunami warning, refugee resettlement, malaria prevention, environmental conservation, human rights, foreign affairs, disaster relief, and border enforcement.

From the 29 finalists, eight winners will be awarded the medals at a September 16 ceremony to be held in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Renate Reimschuessel dosing fish with melamine at her aquaculture research facilities in the Center for Veterinary Medicine’s Office of Research. Dr. Reimschuessel has been nominated for a Service to America Model for her work in discovering how melamine and related chemical combined to produce harmful crystals in the kidneys of animals.