It is important to ensure that rodent colonies are free of adventitious infectious agents to support high quality, robust research & safety data. Over the last 50 years, health surveillance has been typically performed using sentinel animals. More recently, molecular-based diagnostics combined with environmental monitoring strategies have been adapted by many institutions to either supplement or replace the more traditional methods. These newer approaches have the possibility of significantly reducing/replacing the number of rodents used in maintaining specific-pathogen-free colonies.
What are some reasons to consider switching from soiled bedding sentinels?
- 3Rs, replace thousands of mice/year
- Improve compassion fatigue (i.e., “one well-being”)
- Improve pathogen detection
- Detection of excluded infectious agents. Some agents are not transferred well to sentinels via soiled bedding such as fur mites, Sendai virus, Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV), Lactate Dehydrogenase Virus (LDV), Rodentibacter pneumotropicus and R. heylii (previously Pasteurella pneumotropica),Helicobacter, etc.
- Detect critical pathogens earlier (e.g., bovis, Manuel, 2017)
- PCR may be more sensitive at detecting low level prevalence agents
- Sentinel variability such as age, strain, and immune status can impact transmission and subsequent detection
- Potential savings in money and/or labor
- Avoid technical/staff inconsistencies innate in soiled bedding sentinel programs
- Differential sampling can allow you to determine which specific cages are positive
- Eliminate risk of receiving sentinels infected with excluded agents
How can environmental monitoring replace or be a compliment to soiled bedding sentinels?
Individually Ventilated Cages (IVCs) + Plenum Swabs
- Advantages = Initially less costly than exhaust plenum media holders also referred to a “collars mounted media.”
- Challenges = Some rack brands/designs are easier to implement environmental monitoring than others (e.g., not effective with rack designs with cage level exhaust air filtration). May not be sensitive enough for pathogens that are at low prevalence.
IVCs + Collar Mounted Media
- Advantages = Operator variability is minimized & minimal handling is required. Detects Helicobacter & MNV with similar sensitivity to swabbing. Media helps increase dust collection. Acceptable for 3-month collection. Provides a history of pathogens that were present over the previous 3 months. Presumably reduced ergonomic effort.
- Challenges = Can be physically difficult to place/collect collar mounted media from single-sided racks. Collars/media must be placed AFTER racks are washed & collected BEFORE wash which requires coordination (alternatively you can wait to wash racks until they test positive and then clean once potential outbreak is resolves). May be costly.
IVCs or Static Cages + Filter Paper and Sentinels or Cage Shaking
- Advantages: Effective even when air filtration occurs at cage level before reaching exhaust ducts (Bauer, 2016; Dubelko, 2018). Can use in cages with sentinels or use cage shaking method (Dubelko, 2018). PCR testing of filter paper from cages shaken twice weekly was MORE effective than PCR testing of feces & fur from sentinel mice. Can test at 1 month except for very low prevalence organisms (e.g., Spironucleus).
- Effective for: Pinworms & Fur Mites, regardless of type of bedding (Gerwin, 2016); MNV, Helicobacter, Rodentibacter spp., (better than sentinels), Entamoeba muris, Spironucleus spp. (Dubelko, 2018)
- Challenges: Still reliant on soiled bedding transfer (amount of soiled bedding, dilution factor, frequency of transfer) & dependent on personnel shaking cages.
Removing testing altogether or testing individual animals via PCR
- If animals from approved vendors will only be on-site for a short period of time (e.g., <1-2 months) then health monitoring may not be necessary.
- Can consider collecting fecal samples, fur swabs +/- oral swabs directly from colony animals.
Common Concerns with Switching to Environmental Monitoring
- Is there really enough data on this? More and more data is coming out (see references below). So far we have about 7 years of good data and success.
- It's too costly! In fact, in some cases, especially considering the cost of housing & caring for sentinel rodents, it may be less expensive to conduct environmental monitoring (Luchins, 2020).
- I don't have time to retrain my staff & develop a new program. Although there may be an initial time investment, there are time savings once implemented (Luchins, 2020).
- Will other institutions accept our rodents? Reports from institutions currently using only environmental monitoring indicate that yes, other institutions will accept their rodents. In fact, other institutions recognize the increased sensitivity of this type of health monitoring program.
- Will there be false positives or ambiguities? This is possible. Always investigate unexpected results further.
- Will there be residual nucleic acid after rack washing? There may be some for Helicobacter spp. or MNV though may not (Mailhot, 2019). If seen, you may need to wash racks more than once or even scrub plenums to remove residual nucleic acids.
- What about missing new & emerging pathogens? This problem can be helped by performing histopathology on any colony animals with unusual phenotypes/signs/illness.
How common is environmental monitoring?
- In a webinar survey of 172 individuals, 79% say their institution use some form of environmental monitoring.
- In a webinar survey of 167 individuals of 82% say they are still using sentinel animals.
What should I do if I find something?
- This may depend on the pathogen. Ask your diagnostic laboratory what they recommend. They may recommend:
- Testing colony animals by cage perimeter swabs, direct fur swabs, blood, or feces to narrow down positive cages.
- Pooled plenum swabbing for confirmatory testing
- If you suspect a false positive or residual nucleic acid, then move cages to a clean rack & re-swab in 2-4 weeks.
- Consider submitting to a different diagnostic lab for confirmatory testing.
Further research is needed on implementing environmental monitoring with cage level filtration
- Does filter paper need to be in the lid or can it be in direct contact with soiled bedding?
- How much cage shaking is actually needed?
- Testing with introduced pathogens would help confirm detection capabilities
On September 16, 2020 NA3RsC put together a panel webinar on Applications in Developing Technologies for Rodent Health Surveillance.
Our speakers were Susan Dowling, DVM.; Christina Pettan-Brewer, DVM, MSC; Patricia L. Foley, DVM, DACLAM; and Chris Manuel, DVM, PhD, DACLAM.
After participating in this webinar, attendees will be able to
- Better understand the strengths and limitations of using the latest diagnostic technologies for rodent health surveillance
- Make more informed decisions on how to use the latest diagnostic technologies in their health surveillance programs
- Be able to guide and make recommendations to developers and suppliers for the advancement of technologies in this area.
We had over 694 individuals register for this webinar when it was live. We have received feedback from two large academic and government institutions that they will be changing over to full environment monitoring after viewing this webinar. Please share it with your networks so we can work together to reduce/replace sentinel animals.
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