Harvard engineer taps immunotherapy for insights into nonsurgical pet sterilization

On the surface, Harvard University engineer David Mooney may not seem like an obvious candidate for the $700,000 grant he recently received to develop a contraceptive vaccine for pets. That's because Mooney's specialty is not animal health but rather cancer immunotherapy--the search for therapies that prompt the immune system to attack tumors.

But Mooney, who serves on the faculty of Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, believes there may be a link between immunotherapy and sterilization. He plans to follow that hunch with the help of the new grant, which was awarded by the Los Angeles-based Michelson Found Animals Foundation. If he's right, he could help eliminate the need for costly neutering and spaying of dogs and cats. That, in turn, could reduce the numbers of pets killed in shelters each year.

Mooney tells The Boston Globe that he hopes to adapt his cancer-fighting technique to the creation of a contraceptive vaccine. Mooney's team has developed a tiny implant filled with tumor-specific antigens that essentially train immune cells to recognize cancer cells and kill them. Mooney plans to use the same concept to design a one-time injection for animals that would prompt the immune system to attack the hormones governing reproduction.

Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of Michelson Found Animals, tells the Globe that an injectable contraceptive would not only spare pet owners the expense and hassle of surgery, but it would also help shelters effectively control the problem of pregnancy in stray animals. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, just 10% of the 7.6 million animals that enter shelters each year are spayed or neutered.

"It would be so much easier if instead of driving to the clinic and having to [perform] surgery you could do a quick injection," Gilbreath said.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Robert Langer adds that Mooney's research might also boost efforts in human medicine to further develop immunotherapy approaches against many diseases. "You always learn things [from pets] and some of it is translatable," Langer told the Globe.

Although Langer is not involved in Mooney's project, he is renowned as a major promoter of bioscience innovation, having taken a leading role in the commercialization of inventions from MIT and Harvard. One of his most recent successes is Microchips Biotech, an MIT spinoff that has developed a fingernail-sized implant designed to deliver drugs for up to 16 years without having to be replaced. The company announced in December that it has completed development of the device, which is being tested for a number of applications, including birth control.

Harvard's Mooney, owner of two Labradoodles, said he was more than happy to contribute to the search for a technology to replace spaying and neutering. "Even for house pets, it's a pretty major surgery," he told the Globe. "I thought it would be great if we could do something to help dogs and cats avoid going through the surgery."

- here's the Globe story

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