Pounds 1.5m sets tails wagging

June 23, 1995

Cambridge University's veterinary school is establishing a professorship in farm animal health, food science and food safety thanks to a Pounds 1.5 million grant from Marks and Spencer.

The post is part of a Pounds 20 million expansion programme at the school which boasts research expertise in infection and immunity, clinical veterinary genetics, neurology and animal welfare.

One of the school's research projects has led to the development of a genetic test with the potential to eliminate a disease that is a major cause of blindness in dogs.

David Sargan, project director, says that the disease has been reported in more than 80 breeds, but in this country most often afflicts miniature and toy poodles, miniature schnauzers, miniature long-haired dachshunds, cocker spaniels and retrievers. He says: "Several hundred new cases are brought to our attention every year but it is highly likely that a large number are not reported at all."

The disease, called progressive retinal atrophy, initially causes loss of night vision followed by progressive loss of day vision and eventually total blindness. It is associated with the degeneration of cells in the retina of the eye.

Dr Sargan says that the condition closely resembles an inherited one found in humans, which causes one in 4,000 people to go blind before the age of 60.

He explains that in human families suffering from this form of blindness, scientists have found mutations in genes vital for enabling the eye to convert light into electrical signals.

Cambridge scientists working in collaboration with the Animal Health Trust and the Institute of Opthalmology have shown that Irish setters affected by the disease have a similar kind of mutation in a gene which carries out a similar function.

Tests in the United States have also shown this one particular mutation in affected Irish setters.

However, Dr Sargan says that other pedigree breeds with the disease appear to have mutations in different genes, so making the application of this particular test to all breeds impossible.

Although this is unfortunate, Dr Sargan says that the test developed at Cambridge is a major stepping stone for tackling the disease in other breeds and that work is under way to look at these other mutations more closely.

The test is now being offered to breeders of Irish setters and has the capacity to eliminate the disease from this particular breed in a single generation. Dogs carrying the disease need to have two copies of the mutant gene for the disease to become active.

The test not only identifies those dogs with the disease but also those carrying just one copy of gene, further improving the chances of excluding those affected from the breeding programme.

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