A ewe-nique project
Some people like to count sheep to help them get to sleep, but the Berndts of Blue Earth and the Gudals of Bricelyn are counting sheep for an entirely different purpose.
The Berndts, along with 18 other cooperators, including the Gudals, raise a specific genetic line of sheep that could potentially provide a treatment for Huntington’s disease.
No cure exists currently, but the Berndt and Gudal farms, along with other members of the cooperative of GlycoScience Research, are hoping to change that.
Pam Berndt says that she and Ryan, as well as Tim and Susan Gudal have developed and maintained a flock of unique sheep carrying a genetic trait that may help those living with Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The genetic trait both the Berndts and the Gudals look for in their sheep is called the GM1 gangliosidosis trait. Once the local Faribault County farmers have their sheep, they send off their ovines to the Holler family, home of the GlycoScience Research facility, in Brookings, South Dakota.
“All of our lambs must be genetically tested each spring to discover if they are carriers of the gene or if they are affected by it,” says Berndt. “The affected lambs provide large quantities of a GM1 ganglioside that will hopefully be approved by the FDA?for clinical trials in Huntington’s Disease treatment to slow down neuro-degeneration. This is a very science-filled topic, but it all boils down to the possibility of treating Huntington’s disease and several other illnesses with natural sheep gangliosides.”
GM1 ganglioside is a naturally occurring molecule that has been shown to have neuroprotective and neuro-regenerative properties.
The Berndts and the Gudals work with Larry and Susan Holler to obtain the gangliosides.
Larry Holler has a DVM degree from Kansas State University and a Ph.D. from Washington State University. He is currently employed as a diagnostic pathologist and animal reproductive disease specialist in the Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences department at South Dakota State University.
Sue Holler has a BS degree in Animal Science and an MS degree in reproductive physiology from Purdue University. She has been employed in research, teaching, and diagnostic positions ad many universities.
“The Hollers are wonderful, everyday people that put everything they have into this project,” says Berndt. “Our family has been raising sheep for about 20 years. In the past we had a very small herd of about six ewes that was mostly used for keeping weeds under control in our pastures.”
Berndt says in 2015, they got involved in the GM1 project through the Gudals.
“Our herd has grown significantly since then,” she says. “We lambed 41 ewes this spring. This was a big undertaking for us since we both work full-time. However, the Gudals have over 200 ewes on their cattle and sheep farm operation.”
Both the Gudal’s sheep and the Berndt’s sheep are raised primarily for the GM1 project, however, any lambs that are not carriers or affecteds are sold as feeder lambs. She says there is a lot of record keeping involved to ensure none of the carrier animals ever leave a cooperator’s farm.
“Once you hear all of the unbelievable things the GM1 gangliosides have the potential of playing a part in, you can’t help but get excited about the future of this project,” says Berndt. “Imagine a naturally occurring substance that has the ability to play a role in treating patients with Huntington’s disease, possibly Parkinson’s, or even helping in traumatic brain injuries.”
She says that stage is a bit further in the future, but with increased funding of clinical trials, the GM1 project is getting closer to its goal all the time.
With the help of farmers like the Berndts and the Gudals, scientists like the Hollers can keep counting their sheep, and keep dreaming of a future with less and less neurological disorders until it becomes a reality.