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Million-dollar ideas

Michelson Prize and Grants program spurs research into nonsurgical spay/neuter

From Animal Sheltering magazine January/February 2012

The tools of the spay/neuter trade might be changing. The Michelson Prize and Grants program is putting up millions of dollars to inspire researchers to devise a nonsurgical alternative to conventional surgery. Shirley Johnston acknowledges that developing a nonsurgical way to permanently disable the reproductive systems of cats and dogs is a difficult task, but she’s impressed with the quality of the proposals received by the Michelson Prize and Grants program. Executive director Aimee Gilbreath says the Found Animals Foundation—reflecting the wishes of its founder, Gary Michelson—seeks innovative solutions to the problem of shelter euthanasia. Michael Munks William Ja Scott Struthers

Of course it can’t buy you love, and it may be the root of all evil, but on this we can agree: Money can get things done.

It might, in fact, spur a solution to pet overpopulation and unnecessary euthanasia.

That’s the hope of the Found Animals Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit founded by Gary Michelson, a billionaire spinal surgeon who made his fortune patenting medical devices. Incorporated in 2005 after Michelson saw the animal issues caused by Hurricane Katrina and was moved to help, Found Animals offers a variety of programs, from adoption to pet identification, aimed at minimizing or ending shelter euthanasia. (The “found” in the organization’s name, says executive director Aimee Gilbreath, reflects both the promise of its microchip program and Michelson’s affection for the song “Amazing Grace,” which includes the line, “I once was lost, but now am found.”)

In late 2008, the foundation announced an eyepopping brass ring: the Michelson Prize and Grants in Reproductive Biology. The prize promised $25 million to the first entity to develop a low-cost, single-dose, nonsurgical method of permanently sterilizing cats and dogs. The project made another $50 million available in grants for related research. “The prize is out there to motivate people to go after the Holy Grail, and the grant program is there to make sure they have the resources to pursue that lofty goal,” Gilbreath says. She’s confident the prize will be awarded within five years, but notes it will take at least another two years beyond that to get a product on the market.

In the edited interview that follows, Gilbreath, a former biotechnology researcher and business consultant who became the foundation’s first employee, and Shirley Johnston, an expert on animal reproduction who oversees the prize and grants program, discuss the project’s progress with Animal Sheltering associate editor James Hettinger.

Animal Sheltering: Give us a thumbnail description of the Michelson Prize and Grants program.

Aimee Gilbreath: When [Gary Michelson] got interested in how to keep so many pets from being euthanized in shelters, he started looking at weak points in the system, and realized that affordability and accessibility of spay and neuter was an issue. He started thinking that technology has got to have a solution to this that is nonsurgical, affordable, and easy to deploy in a field setting. That was the genesis of the Michelson Prize and Grants program.

Shirley Johnston: In the history of the world, there has never been such [an] amount of money available to study dog and cat reproduction. Our program is trying to get the word out to not only scientists who have worked in the field of dog and cat reproduction in the past, but also people that work on basic cellular mechanisms, people that work in human reproduction, to try and find innovative ways that we can discover a single-dose, nonsurgical sterilant. To date we’ve approved about 15 proposals. And we’ve got funding in place around the United States, and also in Argentina and Australia—researchers there that have successfully applied for our grants.

What form are you envisioning? Would this be a shot? A pill?

Gilbreath: We actually try really hard to be agnostic about what approach might ultimately carry the day. We are open to any nonsurgical method, whether that would be an injectable, a pill, some sort of medical device, some sort of very small implant. We really don’t have a preconceived notion of how this problem gets solved.

Do you think this will ultimately be cheaper than conventional surgery?

Gilbreath: That is our hope, and one of the requirements for winning the prize is that it has a reasonable manufacturing cost.

How affordable do you think this would be?

Johnston: We hope that it will be in the neighborhood of $5 to $10 [per dose] when manufactured on a large scale. We are prepared to award the prize for something up to about $30.

Are you picturing a day when this nonsurgical method would actually replace conventional surgeries?

Gilbreath: It’s not necessarily our intention to replace surgical spay/neuter. It’s our intention to extend the reach to places and to people where surgical techniques don’t work well now. You could envision a product coming out of this—just for example—that was great for feral cats, but maybe not great for owned cats. It could be that owned cats will continue to get surgical spay and neuter, but there’ll be a great option for feral cat caretakers.

What do you see as the obstacles to this nonsurgical solution? Is it a scientific problem, or a matter of the funding not being there to do the research?

Gilbreath: I think it’s probably a combination. Nonsurgical products for humans are out there, and they’ve been out there for 40 years. If you can do it for humans, I have no doubt that it is technologically possible to do it for pets. I have to think that a lot of it has been technology, and funding to really motivate people to apply cutting-edge technology to that issue.

It’s not necessarily our intention to replace surgical spay/neuter. It’s our intention to extend the reach to places and to people where surgical techniques don’t work well now.

Johnston: It’s not easy to completely disable the reproductive systems. In nature, the reproductive systems have a lot of ability to rebound, for survival of the species.

Secondly, we have mandated a thoroughly high standard in looking at both the male and female dog and cat. Dogs and cats are real different, and males and females are real different, and so to give a single injection of something that will safely and permanently knock out their [reproductive capability] is really a big challenge.

The money is as important, perhaps, as the other two. I’ve worked in dog and cat reproduction for nearly 40 years now, and people have done good research historically, all over the world, in trying to find safe contraceptive agents. But in my career at universities you would scramble to get a $10,000 to $50,000 grant, and now we are making available a quarter of a million dollars a year for three to four years. We’re really getting some traction in that regard; we’ve really had some quite brilliant proposals come in that we think may be able to solve this challenge.

What would happen if nobody wins the $25 million prize?

Gilbreath: The grant program would continue, and it could be that we have products that come out of grant-funded research that do not meet all of the criteria for the prize, but that would have an impact on the issue. We could very well choose to commercialize some products, for example, if [they] only worked in cats. That could still be a very useful product.

What’s your impression of how the project is going so far?

Gilbreath: We’re seeing exactly what we had hoped for, which is people that were working on technology that could be relevant, but had no idea that this problem existed, actually having that moment of inspiration, and saying, “Oh, this compound that I’m developing for ovarian cancer treatment kills reproductive cells, so I bet that maybe with some tweaks, you could use it to sterilize animals, because I know that a side effect [of] ovarian cancer treatment is sterility.”

Are you optimistic that you’re going to find what you’re looking for?

Johnston: I’m really optimistic. I was [initially] negative about this whole process. I turned down a position on the board originally, because I thought it was like [saying to] somebody, “Oh, we’ll give you $25 million to turn lead into gold.” But I have since come to recognize that in the last 10 to 15 years, science has advanced on so many fronts that now I really do believe we’re going to award this prize.

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.