MU science professor receives $50,000 award for embryo research

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 | 6:50 p.m. CDT; updated 5:27 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 19, 2011
MU curator's professor Randy Prather received $50,000 Tuesday for his mammalian embryo research.

COLUMBIA — Randy Prather is known for modifying pigs to benefit bacon-lovers. 

As an MU curator's professor who specializes in reproductive physiology and molecular biology, Prather is widely known for his research on swine. Prather won the 2011 Distinguished Agriscience Scientist Award on Tuesday. The Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation gives the $50,000 award to only two scientists each year.

"It is really an honor to receive such an award," Prather said. "To date, there are only four awardees, so it is really special."

Prather, who has worked at MU for 22 years, will receive half of the money directly and the other half will help him and his team fund further research to genetically modify pigs that can be more resistant to disease.

Prather is best known for his genetically engineered pigs that produce omega-3 fatty acids and that might provide insight into potential treatments for cystic fibrosis.

Cystic fibrosis to omega-3 bacon

Prather and his team are attempting to develop a genetically engineered pig that may provide a cure for cystic fibrosis, one of the most common life-threatening genetic diseases in humans. About one in every 2,500 to 3,500 American newborns has from cystic fibrosis.

Prather is also known for modifying genes in pigs to create omega-3 fatty acids, a fat that helps reduce the risk of heart diseases. He said his research is still waiting for FDA approval.

However, that is not the only thing he is working on.

Prather's current research focuses on improving the reproductive rates of farm animals by reducing the percentage of lost embryos that occur during early development.

He also is participating in a study to improve human organ transplants by using the organs of genetically modified pigs.

"Genetically engineered pigs may provide organs for people who desperately need them," Prather said.

Why pigs?

Prather said he used to study cattle at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1980s. At that time, researching cattle was popular, and everyone competed to study them. So when there was an empty spot for swine research in Madison, he said it was easy for him to make the transition.

Since then, he has filled various positions relating to swine research, including co-director of the National Swine Resource and Research Center and associate-leader of Reproductive Biology Cluster in MU’s Food for the 21st Century effort. 

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