Auburn University researchers develop non-invasive, painless heartworm detection method for dogs and other pets


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Canine heartworm is a serious and potentially fatal disease of the heart and lungs of dogs worldwide, the cases of which are expected to increase. While most detection tests require blood samples, researchers at Auburn University have developed a non-invasive heartworm detection method that is rapid, can be combined with existing tests to confirm the infection and, perhaps the most beneficial, is painless.

The interdisciplinary research team is made up of Assistant Professor Lindsay Starkey and Professor Byron Blagburn of the College of Veterinary Medicine Department of Pathobiology; Melissa Boersma, analytical chemist and director of Mass spectrometry laboratory in the Faculty of Sciences and Mathematics; and Associate Professor Sarah Zohdy, specialist in vector-borne diseases in the School of Forest and Wildlife Sciences.

“This approach to heartworm screening could change the way we diagnose heartworm infections in dogs,” said Blagburn. “It could also prove useful in many situations, including in shelter and rescue organizations.”

This new method allows a non-invasive sampling of volatile breath substances in less than two minutes. This is followed by gas chromatography to detect key compounds present only in infected animals. The tests can be done during a typical veterinary exam.

Alternatively, this test could allow the convenience of home / mail-in sampling by pet owners where captured breath volatiles are mailed to a lab for analysis, the researchers said.

“This non-invasive technology could also potentially aid in the diagnosis of heartworm in other affected species such as humans and / or cats,” Starkey said. “However, we have not yet examined the cats.”

Canine heartworm disease is caused byDirofilaria immitis, a mosquito-borne pathogen that infects the heart and lungs of dogs, cats and ferrets. Found in both developed and developing countries, this pathogen can infect up to 800,000 dogs in the United States alone. Because it can be fatal, annual testing is recommended.

The main benefit of this development is that it is painless for the animal, Blagburn said. It is also quick and convenient and does not require a blood test.

Moreover, if this new method proves effective for other species, it could be significantly more effective than the methods currently in use, added Starkey.

“The diagnostic options available to cats and other hosts can be either invasive or difficult to interpret,” Starkey said.

Auburn has filed a patent on the technology and is currently seeking a co-development partner to make it market-ready.

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