FDA research biologist Renate Reimschuessel started Vet-LIRN, a partnership between federal, state and university veterinary laboratories.
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Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who work in veterinary medicine are dedicated to keeping animals, including pets and farm animals, healthy. And they have found that when it comes to research, there is strength in numbers.
They know this because of the efforts of one FDA scientist to bridge a communications gap between federal and state veterinary laboratories in critical situations involving animal food or drugs.
The Veterinary Laboratory Response Network (Vet-LRN) was started in 2011 by Renate Reimschuessel, VMD, Ph.D, a research biologist at FDA. In 2013, the name was changed to the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network (Vet-LIRN), to reflect the many investigations the network undertakes in response to concerns reported by animal owners. Thanks in large part to her efforts, FDA now works in partnership with 34 state and university veterinary laboratories across the country.
For example, the network has been actively investigating the illnesses in dogs and some cats associated with consumption of jerky pet treats. Member laboratories have been testing both the treats and the affected animals in a collaborative effort to find the elusive source of these illnesses.
Lisa Murphy, B.S., VMD, DABT, assistant professor of toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, and her lab staff have been a part of the Vet-LIRN community since its inaugural meeting in March 2011.
“Having this great working relationship with the Vet-LIRN program office has put us in a better position to assist veterinarians, pet owners, and producers when there is a concern that an animal may have been harmed by a food product,” says Murphy. “Vet-LIRN proficiency tests allow our technical staff to constantly compare our techniques with other laboratories, and to refine and improve our ability to detect potentially harmful substances in animal foods and tissues.”
Vet-LIRN, which is funded by FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), provides grants to the partnering labs to increase their research capabilities and ability to help the agency in investigating problems involving animal foods and medicines. This means more experts working towards a solution as the labs share relevant findings.
Vet-LIRN is also able to use the network of labs to focus on issues not always garnering much attention nationwide. For example, a lot has been written about people getting Salmonella from contaminated foods or, in some cases, from handling contaminated pet food. The veterinary network is now investigating this as a pet-health issue.
“We know people have gotten Salmonella from handling pet food, but what’s on the other end of the leash?” Reimschuessel asks. “How many dogs have gotten Salmonella infections that we don’t even know about?”
Eleven of the Vet-LIRN labs are researching Salmonella infections in dogs. The same types of the bacteria that make people sick can also make dogs sick, with symptoms that include bloody diarrhea and a fever. The goals of the study include identifying a baseline assessment of how prevalent these infections are in dogs and establishing future surveillance needs to track occurrences.
Reimschuessel says a major goal of Vet-LIRN is to have the laboratories use uniform testing methods to ensure that they can compare their results.
During the deadly 2007 contamination of pet food with the chemicals melamine and cyanuric acid, Reimschuessel was brought into the investigation at CVM because of her specialty in kidney diseases and toxicity. Through her efforts, FDA was able to determine how melamine and related chemicals were responsible for kidney damage in dogs and cats.
“My work with the diagnostic labs really was a key factor in understanding the toxicity and rapidly pinpointing the problem,” Reimschuessel says. “So we said, ‘It would really be good if FDA had their finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the veterinary diagnostic community.’”
Reimschuessel modeled her program after the Food Emergency Response Network, a federal, state and local partnership that responds to emergencies involving food contamination. FERN had collaborative agreements with labs across the country and Reimschuessel saw that as the way to go. During the first year she was able to work with some state labs through FERN’s network.
“Recognizing the need for a laboratory network devoted to investigating problems under the regulatory purview of the Center for Veterinary Medicine, we jumped at the chance of joining Vet-LIRN as soon as the network was established,” says Robert Poppenga, DVM, Ph.D., professor of clinical veterinary toxicology at the University of California, Davis.
In its first year, 16 labs joined Vet-LIRN and Reimschuessel says now nearly every university veterinary laboratory in the nation is a part of Vet-LIRN.
“The Vet-LIRN program has been very useful and has really helped the veterinary diagnostic laboratories,” says Cynthia Gaskill, Ph.D., clinical veterinary toxicologist at the University of Kentucky. “Dr. Reimschuessel and her staff have worked hard to find money and create grants that are so desperately needed by veterinary diagnostic laboratories, enabling us to do our job of protecting animal and human health.”
This article appears on FDA's Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.
March 26, 2014