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Departure of cloning pioneer a loss for UI

Sun., March 8, 2009, 7:38 a.m.

The University of Idaho is losing one of its top researchers, a veterinary science professor who helped bring renown to the state by being part of a team that gave the world its first equine clone.

Some university critics, including some prominent Idaho veterinarians, are unhappy about the imminent departure of associate professor Dirk Vanderwall, who is taking a position at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The University of Idaho frankly screwed this up beyond repair,” said Bruce Lancaster, of Idaho Falls, former president of the Idaho Veterinary Medical Association and former chairman of the advisory board for the university’s Northwest Equine Reproduction Laboratory.

A UI spokeswoman said the university won’t comment on personnel decisions.

In 2003, the birth of a mule named Idaho Gem brought international attention to UI and its equine researchers Vanderwall and Gordon Woods, who left UI for Colorado State University in Fort Collins at the end of 2007. The third team leader was Ken White, of Utah State University, which cooperated in the project.

Now Vanderwall is leaving to take a position as chief of the reproduction section and director of the Hofmann Research Center for Animal Reproduction at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Vanderwall said he had mixed feelings about leaving Moscow, but he said Pennsylvania offered a “once in a lifetime” opportunity that will include teaching, research and clinical service at one of the nation’s most prestigious veterinary schools.

The move, he said, also will bring him closer to family members who live in upstate New York.

Of his work with Woods and White, Vanderwall said, “The stars lined up.”

Each researcher played a key role in producing Idaho Gem and his two genetically identical brothers, Utah Pioneer and Idaho Star. Besides being the first equine clones, all three raced professionally in 2006, which made them the first cloned animals to compete athletically.

Vanderwall said he was grateful for the opportunity UI provided him “to flourish in this environment” for the past 10 years.

“No job that I have had has been perfect,” he said. “Would I have tried to change things? Likely so, but it has been an outstanding fit for me.”

But some believe Pennsylvania’s gain is Idaho’s profound loss.

“We are going to lose a terrific resource in Idaho for practicing veterinarians,” Lancaster said of Vanderwall, who was named theriogenologist of the year in 2005 by the American College of Theriogenologists. (Theriogenologists specialize in animal reproduction and obstetrics.)

“You could call him up with any equine reproductive problem and he would call right back,” Lancaster said.

He said that UI never gave Lancaster or the Northwest Equine Reproduction Laboratory the financial support it deserved.

“The mules were huge publicity for Idaho, but it was like pulling teeth to get support for the program,” Lancaster said. “If you’re not a dairy cow or a wheat field or a spud, you couldn’t get noticed over there.”

Coeur d’Alene veterinarian David Tester said Vanderwall’s departure likely means the end of the Northwest Equine Reproductive Laboratory, which has brought millions of dollars in research money since the lab was founded in 1996.

Tester said Vanderwall has been an indispensable resource in equine reproduction to veterinarians throughout the Northwest.

Cloning, in addition to its potential for preserving equine bloodlines, has human health applications, as well. Because horses rarely get age-onset diseases such as diabetes or prostate cancer, there is great potential for equine clones to serve as a comparative model in medical research.

Post Falls businessman Don Jacklin, who put up at least $400,000 to make the cloning project possible, also expressed disappointment.

“It’s a tremendous loss for the university and the state of Idaho,” Jacklin said.

He called the university a nurturing ground for scientists, “but once they make world-class discoveries, we lose them to higher-paying, better-funded universities.”

As for the mules, which were born in secret at Tester’s ranch in Hayden, all three are alive and well.

Jacklin owns Idaho Gem and Idaho Star, while Utah Pioneer is available for viewing by students on the Moscow campus.

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