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Logan researchers blend ag, biomedical research in cleft palate study

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Laramie – “While our mission is focused on the livestock industry, here was an opportunity where we were able to take our agricultural research that had been done, move it into the biomedical side and collaborate with plastic surgeons,” commented United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Poisonous Plant Research Laboratory Supervisory Research Animal Scientist Kip Panter about the facility’s research with cleft palate repair.

Prior to their annual meeting, Wyoming Farm Bureau hosted a symposium for producers on Nov. 2, where faculty from the research facility in Logan, Utah presented some of their current research findings and projects.

Cleft palate

One manifestation of crooked calf syndrome is a cleft palate, explained Panter.

“Sometimes producers will get cleft palate and no other symptoms in these calves,” he said. “The only way they would recognize it is, when the calf nurses, milk will come out of its nose because the esophagus and the trachea are not separated.”

The clinical signs observed with crooked calf syndrome depend on the day of gestation that the pregnant animal is intoxicated.

“The susceptible period of pregnancy for this lupine induced crooked calf disease begins 40 days. This is when the embryo first starts to move,” continued Panter.

He noted that the animal develops a cleft palate because the toxin in the plant moves across the placenta and inhibits the embryo from moving.

“It’s essential that this embryo start to move to avoid a cleft palate because it allows the tongue to drop out of the roof of the mouth so the palate can close and come together, which ends the embryonic period and starts the fetal development,” stressed Panter.


“We published a paper in 1992 describing the cleft palate in the goat model and the mechanism,” said Panter.

Their research attracted the interest of Jeff Weinzweig, head of plastic and reconstructive surgery for Laheu Medical Clinic in Boston, Mass., who was researching cleft palate in children at the time.

“He read our article and called and said, ‘Is there any chance that you guys would collaborate with us to try and find a model that we can study cleft palate in children to try and find an improved treatment in children?’” said Panter.

The researchers had enough information by that time to produce a cleft palate in the goat models without other birth defects.

With prior research, Weinzweig determined that fetal intervention by a certain period in gestation would allow the fetus to heal completely.

“If we can do the surgery as a fetus before day 100 of gestation, the fetus has the ability to heal without scar tissue formation,” explained Panter. “He wanted to give that a try, so we said okay.”

The equivalent time period of gestation in fetal goats was selected for the study.

“We selected day 85 of gestation. We were right at the beginning of the third trimester,” he continued.

Conventional cleft palate surgery, like what is typically performed on six-month-old children, was done on the fetal goats.

“It worked,” proclaimed Panter. “The baby goats were born with an absolutely normal palate, and we did a whole bunch of research with that after they were born.”

Looking ahead

The research team has been working on the collaborative project for 10 years, and the project is still in progress.

“It’s not done yet because the surgery has not been approved by Food and Drug Administration to be done in people yet. It’s still at the animal phase,” said Panter.

Current treatments for children with cleft palate or cleft lip are extremely costly, both financially and time-wise, explained Panter.

“Right now, the cost of intervention in a child is between $700,000 and $1 million per child by the time the palate closure is done at three to six months of age, and they go through 12 to 15 major surgeries in their lifetime before they become adolescents and their facial structure quits growing,” he continued.

However, the experimental surgery the group has tested would dramatically reduce the number of surgeries and potential complication.

“Fetal intervention has the potential to repair that in utero and the children would totally avoid these surgeries and the complications that come after,” concluded Panter. “That’s the goal.”

Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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