NIH-USDA dual-purpose research program showcases advantages of using farm animal models

MSU AgBioResearch animal scientist Jim Ireland believes that farm animals are an underutilized resource for basic research that could have applications to human health, in addition to animal agriculture.

Jim Ireland, MSU professor of animal science and MSU professor of physiology

In 2013, about one-third of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) $155 billion budget was available for basic research in animal agriculture — an industry sector that contributes about half of the total U.S. agricultural receipts. Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch animal scientist Jim Ireland believes that farm animals are an underutilized resource for basic research that could have applications to human health, in addition to animal agriculture.

“When I came to MSU in 1977, federal funding success for animal research was about 30 percent, or three out of every 10 grants submitted,” said Ireland, MSU professor of animal science with a joint appointment in the Department of Physiology. “Now about five or six grants out of 100 proposals receive federal funding.”

The reason, Ireland said, is that the high national debt makes it difficult for Congress to increase funding to support basic research. Ireland also points out that mice have become the predominant model for research, especially in projects sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Mice are cheap, small and easy to use,” Ireland explained. “What you learn in the mouse is good for basic research to test new ideas and concepts, but mice are so different from farm animals and humans that many times the results of the research do not apply.”

He believes that farm animals make the best biomedical models because of their similarity in size, physiology, immune system and genetic makeup to humans.

About 10 years ago, Ireland and fellow MSU professors and MSU AgBioResearch animal scientists George Smith and Jose Cibelli, along with colleagues from other institutions, began trying to raise interest in increasing farm animal research funding. They worked with USDA and NIH representatives to organize workshops showcasing the advantages of farm animals as research models with benefits for both agriculture and biomedicine. One workshop led to the selection of several research focus areas that benefit agriculture and biomedicine.

“The agencies [USDA and NIH] recognize the importance of this dual-purpose, dual- benefit idea, and they have been funding four or five investigators since 2011. It’s a small program, but 17 grants have been funded that would never have been funded before,” Ireland said.

A project on cattle reproduction by Smith, acting associate director of MSU AgBioResearch, is the only MSU study to date to receive funding through this dual- purpose program.

In June 2014, Ireland made a presentation on the benefits of farm animals as dual- purpose research models at a National Coalition for Food and Agriculture Research seminar in Washington, D.C., where he met with Congressional staff members and other governmental agency representatives. He continues to work to promote the benefits of the dual-purpose research models that are supported by both NIH and USDA, and how they can produce results that solve complex problems.

Ultimately, Ireland hopes Congress will increase funding for farm animal research using dual-purpose models that explore infectious diseases, stem cells, reproduction and obesity. He believes the necessity for this type of research is becoming more crucial because of factors including new farming regulations, foreign competition, higher energy costs and increasing populations.

“These factors place a premium on all of animal agriculture to eliminate inefficiencies and get better weight gains, better health, better animal feeds and higher reproductive performance,” Ireland said.

He believes farm animal research can be especially beneficial in learning what happens to women when they are pregnant and potential impacts on the health of their children.

“Whatever the mother, be it animal or human, is eating or whatever the mom is exposed to can have dramatic effects on the health of the offspring,” Ireland explained. “Learning about this through farm animal research will change not only agriculture but human medicine as well.”

Ireland said he and his colleagues are thankful for the cooperation of NIH and USDA in helping make advancements in the dual-purpose project. He is also appreciative of the scientists who took time to discuss their research with Congress, which ultimately will decide on funding.

“The politicians have to solve this problem,” Ireland said. “They have to say that this dual-purpose program is a good idea and work on ways to fund it. I believe it is a unique way to bring human, veterinary and animal sciences together, and that it will help spawn interdisciplinary collaborations to resolve complex health problems in both humans and farm animals.”

For more information on the advantages of domestic species as dual-purpose models, visit

See other articles from the AgBioResearch annual report.

Did you find this article useful?