Penn Vet’s diagnostic labs help keep diseases at bay

In early December, when a mother bear and her three cubs turned up dead in a church parking lot in northeast Pennsylvania, it sparked CSI-like intrigue. As Game Commission officials could find no obvious cause of death, they turned to scientists at the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System (PADLS), to lend their diagnostic skills to solve the case.

Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine New Bolton Center campus is home to one of the three labs that comprise PADLS. By the close of 2016, Penn Vet scientists—with an assist from botanist Timothy Block of the Morris Arboretum—were able to help determine the cause of the bears’ demise: the toxic leaves and seeds of an English yew plant.

Though the unusual nature of this case drew widespread attention, it represents only one facet of the services PADLS offers. Together with the other two PADLS sites—at Penn State University and the Pennsylvania Veterinary Laboratory in Harrisburg—New Bolton’s expert team of 36 pathologists, toxicologists, microbiologists, and clinicians work collaboratively, using state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment and techniques, to identify disease threats and contaminants that could put the health of pets, wildlife, livestock—and humans—at risk.

“To sum it up in a tidy sentence, the mission of PADLS is to identify and prevent disease problems,” says Lisa Murphy, PADLS director at New Bolton Center and an associate professor of toxicology at Penn Vet. “Given the significance of the agricultural industry in Pennsylvania, PADLS’ work is vital to the state’s economy and public health.”

PADLS New Bolton accomplishes this work in a myriad of ways. The molecular diagnostics lab uses genetic techniques to rapidly and accurately detect pathogens. The microbiology lab helps ensure food and environmental safety through programs such as the Pennsylvania Egg Quality Assurance Program, while also serving as a resource to Penn Vet’s two hospitals. The toxicology service tests contaminants in the environment, food, or animals. A large-animal pathology laboratory offers necropsy services to hospital patients as well as patients referred to New Bolton by veterinarians around the state. A geographic information system mapping program tracks outbreaks of disease on farms to help guide control efforts. And PADLS engages in field investigations when veterinarians and producers require assistance managing disease outbreaks.

Over the last fiscal year alone, PADLS New Bolton analyzed more than 15,000 cases, from a diverse array of animals, including horses, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, deer, and fish.

Penn Vet is uniquely equipped to handle these cases, with board-certified staff, high-quality facilities to ensure safety and accurate results, and access to the resources and expertise of faculty and clinicians across the University.

“You can send a sample to any lab and get a result, but without the right expert to interpret those results and offer suggestions of how to respond, it’s a waste of time and money,” Murphy says.

PADLS’ disease surveillance work, whether to examine known pathogens such as rabies or emerging infections such as new forms of avian influenza, offer an early detection system to identify potential threats to public health. A new effort led by Donna Kelly, section head of veterinary clinical microbiology at PADLS, for example, will look for MRSA infections that could jump from animal food products to humans.

“In Denmark, scientists found a new form of MRSA infecting people who had never had close contact with any birds,” Kelly says. “They think they may have contracted it by handling or eating chicken. That’s something we’d really like to keep our eye on here.”

Armed with information, farmers and public health officials can take the necessary steps to contain infections. Murphy says that Pennsylvania’s thorough detection system has already proven its worth.

“The most recent significant avian influenza outbreak in the region cost to the tune of $400,000 in Pennsylvania, but a comparable outbreak in the state of Virginia cost about $100 million,” she says.​​​​​​​

PADLS recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, and though its commitment to protecting public health with an emphasis on One Health—the connection between animals, people, and the environment—has remained consistent over that time, the methods by which scientists arrive at their diagnoses and incorporate collaboration has advanced considerably. Michelle Lucey Gibison, who heads the molecular diagnostic service, says technologies such as real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and multiplexing enable the lab to provide rapid diagnoses and screen for many diseases simultaneously.

“Our PCR techniques can give us results in two hours,” Gibison says. “And we’re always looking to develop more panels to test for emerging diseases or problematic strains that are popping up around the world.”

Looking ahead, Murphy would like to continue pushing the bounds of science technology to inform PADLS’ diagnostic work, in part by taking advantage of the resources that Penn provides.

“If you look at research on the microbiome, for example, we’re learning so much about how that influences disease risk and progression,” she says. “In the future, I’d really like to increase our interactions with [Penn Vet’s] Center for Host-Microbial Interactions to integrate those big-data approaches in diagnostics.”

Penn Vet’s Diagnostic Labs Help Keep Diseases at Bay