K-State diagnostic laboratory helps animals around the state stay safe, healthy
By Michelle Hall
Without the diagnostic laboratory at Kansas State University, agriculture and veterinary practice in Kansas would move much, much slower. Literally.
The lab is responsible for certifying the health of all animals moved in and out of Kansas, as well as testing all samples from sick or diseased food and pet animals around the state to find out what's wrong with them. And those are just a few of their roles in keeping animals in Kansas and beyond safe and healthy.
Sanjay Kapil, associate professor of clinical virology, is director of clinical virology and serology for the diagnostic laboratories. He said the lab has three main roles: diagnosing and preventing animal disease in Kansas; researching and sharing coronavirus reagents with labs and vaccine creators all over the world; and teaching students through these clinical experiences.
Although Kansas is their home and primary mission, they work with many other veterinarians and laboratories around the world, Kapil said. Students help Kapil with nearly every task in the laboratory. He said he's fortunate to work with many good graduate and undergraduate students.
"Our lab is the diagnostic veterinary laboratory for Kansas," Kapil said. "We receive samples from veterinarians all over the state for all species." They first run tests to find out why the animal is sick. If the problem is coronavirus, a main focus of the research aspect of the lab, they then use the virus for research.
"We help all vets in Kansas," Kapil said. He said they work closely with veterinarians on complicated cases to help them to know what samples to take and which tests to run. For example, they isolated the first case of West Nile virus in a Kansas horse in October 2002.
K-State is a frontline for emerging viruses, not just what is seen in books or journals, Kapil said. They found the first instances of West Nile virus in sheep -- no one thought sheep could get West Nile until K-State proved it to be true. They also knew the SARS outbreak was possible long before it emerged, he said.
The diagnostic laboratory checks and issues health certificates for all animals moved in and out of Kansas and also works with large swine farms to do testing for various viruses, such as pseudorabies. "We test thousands of samples for the movement of animals," Kapil said.
Surveillance is yet another job the laboratory performs to aid the state -- six months before West Nile appeared in Kansas they had started tracking the virus through blood samples from animals in all corners of the state. "The diagnostic lab is very forward looking," Kapil said. "We're like a cop looking for troublemakers."
The lab is also called on for legal investigations to see where an animal's or a group of animals' sickness came from; they perform genetic sequencing of viruses for authorities. They often go back and look at viruses over many years to track and compare them. In addition to the diagnostic capabilities of the lab, the research the lab performs also aids the state, through partnerships and the sharing of new discoveries.
K-State's lab is the "Grand Central Station" of coronavirus studies and supplies diagnostic reagents to labs all across North America. These can be used to help create vaccines or to help diagnose viruses. Coronaviruses are named for their crown-like appearance due to surface projections on the viral envelope. They cause a variety of problems in animals and, in humans, are one of the major causes of the common cold. K-State is the leading lab in researching this virus and producing reagents, or samples of the virus. They are the only lab that offers a test for bovine coronavirus in feces, for example. This virus is a major problem for beef and dairy cattle, Kapil said -- and it's also his expertise.
Presently, lab workers are helping Kansas farmers with the remediation or removal of viruses from the environment. Recently, Kapil and a doctoral student took samples from a farm experiencing trouble with coronavirus to test the stability of the virus in soil.
"We're always on call for the state of Kansas," Kapil said.
K-State's lab is also working closely with Rolling Hills Zoo in Salina, to test the role of feline coronavirus in large cats. This virus is the No. 1 killer of domestic and large cats. The lab's work with Rolling Hills may allow the zoo to receive a pair of much sought-after cats from Namibia. Kapil said that since large cats are in such demand at zoos, the zoos often must incorporate research projects to receive the animals.
Lab workers also participate in the K-State College of Veterinary Medicine's annual conference where they present cases that have emerged in the past year to Kansas veterinarians. They have also presented to the Kansas legislature about emerging diseases and viruses as expert witnesses, and often work with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on cases of zoonotic importance -- cases involving viruses or diseases that can afflict animals and humans, such as West Nile or rabies. The lab plays a central role with the United States Department of Agriculture in Topeka -- K-State's diagnostic lab is the first line in reporting outbreaks or cases of rare disease or viruses.
"It's all a partnership," Kapil said. "We are a small link in the chain to keep Kansas, United States and international agriculture completely safe and secure."
Photos: (Right) Research assistant Joe Anderson works in a biosafety cabinet in the diagnostic laboratory. This device utilizes an airflow system to protect the worker and the work. Biosafety cabinets are used when working with a wide variety of pathogenic agents commonly present in diagnostic samples, such as rabies.
(Left) Research assistant Heather Wisdom and Dr. Sanjay Kapil look at a plate of West Nile virus serology, checking for antibodies. This test is used to document the spread of West Nile.
Images courtesy David Adams.