A $75 million race to aid dogs and cats

One of the world’s great scientific prizes has a simple-sounding mission: Develop a treatment, maybe a shot or pill, that is inexpensive and eliminates the need for expensive surgery to spay or neuter a cat or dog.

It is called the Michelson Prize & Grants, and if it succeeds it would have a profound impact in helping to resolve the overpopulation and euthanization each year of millions of cats and dogs around the planet.

Dr. Gary Michelson, who became a billionaire by inventing human medical devices to perform spinal surgery, has offered $75 million — $50 million in grants to sustain research and a top prize of $25 million — to spur scientists to develop a low cost, single dose, non-surgical way to sterilize male and female cats and dogs.

That’s no easy task, since reproductive processes are so different between genders and between species, and even treatments for common preventives such as rabies require boosters.

The Michelson Prize & Grants, launched in 2008, has already awarded more than $8 million in 19 grants to further research. On Monday April 16, 2012, for the first time those researchers came together from Australia, Argentina and across the U.S., gathering in Santa Monica, Calif., to report on the progress in the hunt.

“We kill 3 to 4 million cats and dogs in U.S. shelters each year,” Michelson told a dozen or so leading researchers gathered around a large conference table. “I want my tombstone to say: He made a difference. This problem is solvable, and the people in this room are going to make a difference.”

There is no lack of creativity in attacking the problem, as evidenced by the diversity of the research efforts presented, cutting edge science and technology employing nanocontainers and gene silencing. Dr. Megan Lloyd, a dog lover from Crawley, Australia, helped develop a vaccine designed to induce infertility in mice to address mouse plagues in Australia, and plans a similar approach to sterilizing dogs and cats. The cat herpes virus holds a key to the tack taken by Dr. Michael Munks of Denver, whose pets include two rescued cats, Buttercup and Raven.

While each holds promise, it is clear the process is at an early stage, and even the scientists acknowledged strengths and flaws. You know you are in an academic setting when the participants even offer helpful suggestions and observations to each other about the research. And it may turn out that some teams will find synergy by joining forces to forge a solution.

A product ready to use? That may be five to 10 years away, but a proof of concept ready for testing could be at hand within two years.

It can’t come soon enough for Michelson.

The humanitarian, who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to replant rainforests and aid human medical research, grew up with pets and owns three dogs — all rescued. That’s why he launched Found Animals, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that administers the prize and supports adoption, spay and neuter in Los Angeles through a number of innovative programs.

“We supply all the pet microchips to all the animals adopted out of the Los Angeles county shelters,” says Aimee Gilbreath, the executive director of Found Animals and mom to Rufus, her adopted Pit Bull Terrier.

Based on research from shelters that have been most effective with low or no cost spay and neuter, she says Found Animals estimates a cheap, easy sterilization solution could cut shelter intakes by 50 percent, and eliminate 95 percent of the need for euthanizing animals. That’s millions of needless deaths each year of healthy animals.

As someone who has volunteered in rescue for 17 years, and helps at a shelter each week, I can’t think of a more worthy companion animal cause, even if it accomplishes a fraction of that lofty goal.

So the race is on, and clearly there is much more at stake than $25 million.

Learn more about the Found Animals Foundation and the Michelson Prize & Grants.

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