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Poultry research offers insight to human cancer
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Research on a disease in chickens that closely resembles Hodgkin's lymphoma in humans could provide better diagnosis and treatment for people who suffer with this cancer.
Dr. Shane Burgess, an assistant professor in Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, said one of the significant findings of his research on Marek's disease virus of chickens is that Marek's disease is the first natural model for Hodgkin's lymphoma in humans.
"Most cancer research involving animals is done on mice, but mice do not have a natural equivalent to Hodgkin's lymphoma," Burgess said. "It is possible to give a mouse human Hodgkin's disease cells, but first it's necessary to erase its immune system. The problem is that humans have an immune system, so the disease in mice is not equivalent to that in humans."
Burgess discovered that chickens with Marek's disease lymphomas and humans with Hodgkin's lymphomas share a specific molecule that marks the tumor cells. He said the benefit for human Hodgkin's disease patients is that researchers now can study how the animal model of Hodgkin's disease develops.
"Studying disease in its earliest stages gives us the potential to develop early diagnostic tests that will tell us whether or not the disease is present and the degree of malignancy. This will determine how best to treat the patient," he said. "On the therapeutic side, researchers eventually could design smart drugs to treat only those aberrant genes in particular cells."
The benefits of this research to human patients could take years to be fully realized. But Burgess said the benefits to the poultry industry may be more immediate.
"Marek's disease brought the poultry industry to its knees in the 1970s. Vaccines were developed to control the disease, but in the last 10 years, the virus has evolved and the vaccines often can't control it anymore," he said. "Understanding and being able to treat chickens with Marek's disease, as well as developing more effective vaccines, can only help the poultry industry."
Burgess began researching Marek's disease as a doctoral student in the United Kingdom and continued that research while working with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's Institute for Animal Health in Berkshire, England. He came to MSU in 2002 and continued his research.
His paper describing the research on Marek's disease appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science this month. MSU Vice President for Research Colin Scanes said the significance of having a paper published in this journal cannot be overemphasized.
"I am delighted that Shane Burgess has published a landmark study of both fundamental and applied interest in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science," Scanes said. "This journal is one of the top three highly respected scientific journals in the world."
Contact: Dr. Shane Burgess, (662) 325-1239