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Cystic Fibrosis in Sheep

Researchers in the University of Otago's Molecular Biology Unit, jointly run by the Biochemistry Department and AgResearch, are enlisting sheep to help study cystic fibrosis. There are many genetic parallels between sheep and humans, and Otago is internationally renowned for its research which aims to locate the gene causing cystic fibrosis in a large animal model.

Cystic fibrosis is acquired genetically, and involves the mutation of a gene found in every living organism. One in every 25 people carries the mutated gene, and both parents must be carriers for the illness to manifest itself. There is then one possibility in four of any child being born with cystic fibrosis.

Dr Scott Tebbutt began researching the mutated gene in Oxford three years ago and believes that sheep have much to recommend them in this capacity. Sheep, like humans, are bred from a diverse gene pool and their natural lifespan is longer than that of the animals traditionally used in research such as mice. Sheep lungs are comparable in size to those of humans, so equipment used to study humans can be used, allowing the same level of accuracy in the research. Sheep can be used for experiments which would be impossible to conduct on humans, in order to study the disease in more detail.

"You can't get a human carrier with one type of mutation and a person with another type and make them mate," says Tebbutt.

While cystic fibrosis has a variety of symptoms, it is the build-up of mucus in the lungs which is eventually the cause of death for most sufferers, and it is this which Tebbutt would like to address. The availability of a non-human subject would be a valuable help to researchers.

"If we can reproduce the disease in a sheep lung, we would have very good parallels with the disease in the human lung."