Minnesota farm couple raising sheep to help in treating human disease
KENSINGTON, Minn.—Dan and Kay Persons, sheep producers in rural Kensington in western Minnesota, are hoping to play a role in the fight against Huntington's disease.
Huntington's is a progressive brain disorder that causes uncontrolled movements, emotional problems and loss of thinking ability and cognitive skills, but a lipid produced by some sheep has shown great promise in reversing the devastating symptoms of Huntington's.
The Persons belong to the Dakota Lamb Growers Cooperative and were introduced to Larry and Susan Holler. The Hollers started a grassroots, non-profit organization called The Shepherd's Gift: GM1 for HD.
Sheep GM1, a certain type of lipid or fat, can be separated from the cells of a sheep's brain and spinal cord tissues, where it is in the highest concentration. GM1 allows cells to communicate with each other. It is a natural molecule that can be used for treating and even reversing Huntington's symptoms.
Some of the sheep in Dan and Kay's flock are being raised specifically for their GM1 lipids and eventually, the Persons say their entire flock will be raised for this purpose.
When Dan and Kay moved to this area in 1997, they were raising cattle. In 2002, they decided to add 50 head of sheep to graze the pastures with their cows. Within five years, however, they expanded to 800 ewes and sold off their cattle. These days, the Persons are one of the largest sheep producers in state with roughly 1,000 ewes on their farm.
Their flock includes about 120 GM1 carrier females.
Earlier this month, the Hollers visited Hoffman and Larry did a presentation on The Shepherd's Gift: GM1 for HD, which was founded three years ago.
In his presentation, Larry said, "Research has shown that if we restore the GM1 to normal levels, Huntington's reduces greatly and rapidly."
In Huntington's patients, the missing GM1 gene could be replaced, reducing the effects of the disease.
For the past three years, Larry and Susan Holler have worked with Dr. Steven Hersch, a clinician and researcher at Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital to get GM1 into clinical trials. Hersch is currently completing preclinical studies using the Holler's sheep GM1 product in mice and has had compelling results, according to the Hollers.
"What's amazing is that in clinical trials of mice, it happened in a period of two weeks," Larry said, adding that the GM1 was injected into the abdomen in a single injection every day. "This is truly amazing and so positive."
The Hollers are working on getting the GM1 produced by their sheep into human clinical trials, which is one of the reasons the non-profit organization was started. He is hopeful that the trials will begin sometime in 2018.
He said that one sheep could treat one patient for one entire year. And because of the number of people affected by Huntington's disease, he would like to produce 100,000 lambs per year.
"That's adding a lot of sheep to the sheep industry, which is great," he said. "We're hoping to revitalize the sheep industry."
Larry said that once the GM1 is extracted from the sheep, the sheep can then be processed and meat from the animals can be marketed.
The Food and Drug Administration has reviewed the project and the pre-application came back as favorable, Larry said, but there is still a lot of work to be done with the project and still plenty of funds to be raised. However, both the Hollers and the Persons are hopeful.
"This is as grassroots of an effort you'll probably ever see," said Larry. "But we just keep on persevering."
Dan and Kay said they want to make a positive difference in the treatment of Huntington's.
"If this takes off, we would be open to doubling or tripling our flock," Dan said.
For more information about this project, visit The Shepherd Gift's website at www.theshepherdsgift.org and for more information about GM1 for HD, visit www.glycoscienceresearch.com. You can also find information on the organization's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/GM1FORHD.
The Shepherd's Gift
The Shepherd's Gift: GM1 for HD is a non-profit organization formed by families affected by Huntington's Disease. Its mission is to promote ovine (sheep) GM1 for the treatment of Huntington's Disease and/or other neurological diseases through education, advocacy and fundraising. GM1 has been found to significantly decrease and even reverse symptoms in mice that have Huntington's Disease. It has also shown promise for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.