April 10, 2012

Grad Student Wins $15,000 for Animal Research

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Joseph Rosenthal grad, a student in the University’s biomedical engineering department, recently won the Michelson Graduate Student Challenge for proposing to develop a one-dose, non-surgical sterilant for cats and dogs that he hopes will reduce the number of animals euthanized in shelters every year.

The Michelson Graduate Student Challenge is a competition run by Found Animals Foundation, an animal advocacy organization. Found Animals Foundation rewards graduate student researchers for proposing the best way to create a cheap, effective and non-surgical method of sterilizing cats and dogs in animal shelters.

Of the six to eight million cats and dogs that enter animal shelters per year, three to four million of them are euthanized to curb overpopulation in the shelters, according to Katy Palfrey, program manager for the Michelson prize and grants at the Found Animals Foundation. By preventing the animals from reproducing, Found Animals Foundation hopes that shelters will be able to reduce the number of animals they must take care of without resorting to euthanization.

Rosenthal, one of two winners in the competition, received $15,000 from Found Animals Foundation, according to Palfrey. He hopes to use the money to advance his research.

Rosenthal said that his proposal is based on the vaccine-engineering technology that he and his faculty advisor, Prof. David Putnam, biomedical engineering, have spent the past 18 months developing.

He said that the technology will enable him to turn the body’s immune system against itself by tricking it into believing that molecular markers for reproduction, such as egg proteins, are harmful entities that need to be destroyed.

“That’s kind of what we’ve already made our technology to do,” Rosenthal said. “So from there, writing the proposal and ultimately winning the prize was just a matter of putting the pieces together.”

Rosenthal said that the true difficulty of the Found Animals Foundation’s mission lies not necessarily in the task of creating a non-surgical sterilant for cats and dogs, but in making the vaccination virtually cost-free.

Because Rosenthal and Putnam’s work relies on simple technologies involving common bacteria, Rosenthal said he was able to create the vaccination in a “cheap and scalable way.”

Although he called his work “a crazy idea,” he said “most of the ideas out there are proportionally crazy” because of the scale of the challenge the Michelson Prize has set.

Palfrey said she believes that that graduate students in particular deserved an opportunity to receive funding for their proposals.

“We’re excited about the idea of young scientists thinking outside the box,” Palfrey said.

Lindsay Weissman ’15, who had read an article about the Michelson Prize, echoed this sentiment.

“What these guys are doing is absolutely amazing … I can’t even wrap my head around it,” Weissman said.

Rosenthal said that he cannot gauge what sort of a time commitment the project will entail, but he is sure he will be busy in the next year.

At the outset, Rosenthal expected he would spend “probably a good deal of time making sure the vaccine works,” he said.

He hopes that once he gets the vaccine to work, he will be able to hire other researchers to help him with the project.

“I know I’m going to get my technology to work,” Rosenthal said.

Palfrey said she hopes that by rewarding researchers like Rosenthal, the Michelin Prize will help bring attention to — and produce solutions to — the issue of euthanizing animals.

“The Michelson Prize and Grants is a big bet on the future for how we can have a huge impact on this issue,” Palfrey said.

Original Author: Sarah Sassoon