GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — The wide, treeless plains of Golden Valley County seem a long way from the world's international centers of medical diagnostic testing. North of the small town of Ryegate, sheep and cattle browse for grass among clumps of sagebrush and greasewood, and antelope outnumber humans by more than two to one.
Yet lab techs, doctors and university professors from Tel Aviv to Singapore are all aware of this remote locale — or are at least familiar with one isolated Montana ranch that provides the world with one of the most critical components of human diagnostic testing — animal blood products.
"It's something that the average person will never think of, but it's very, very important to the medical industry," said Jennifer "J.R." Tonjum, quality control consultant for the Quad Five Ranch. "There's a huge market for it and we provide what we feel is the best quality blood product in the world."
Quad Five is one of only five companies in the U.S., and perhaps a couple dozen more across the planet, that collect and sell animal blood products to pharmaceutical companies, laboratories, hospitals and universities worldwide. Without the blood products these companies provide, human diagnostic testing as we know it would be nearly impossible.
Ever been tested for strep throat or a urinary tract infection? If so, the results of your test almost certainly hinged on the presence of a small quantity of sheep's blood. Sterile goat serum is an integral component of HIV test kits. Factors of horse blood are frequently used to test for venereal disease, and the blood of cows is a common substitute for human blood — used by medical schools to train a new generation of doctors and researchers dedicated to the treatment of blood-borne illnesses.
The human medical applications for animal blood are extensive and worldwide, and much of the raw product comes from donor animals living on the Quad Five ranch north of Ryegate.
Most of the blood harvested there goes toward the production of agar plates: petri dishes that contain a sterilized growth medium and are used to culture microorganisms. Tens of millions of agar plates are used in medical research and for diagnostic testing each year.
"Think about a huge hospital and how many agar plates they're going to have," Tonjum said. "Then multiply it by all the doctor's offices, all the hospitals, all the academic labs and all the universities in the world."
In describing the need for animal blood, many people might assume that acquiring it would require the destruction of the animal. In many instances, that assumption is accurate.
According to Wiley Micks, owner of the Quad Five ranch, the nation's largest suppliers of animal blood products are companies affiliated with the meat packing industry. In these cases, blood is drawn from sheep, cattle and goats in a sterile environment prior to their eventual slaughter.
However, since its establishment in 1990, Quad Five has relied upon a "donor animal" program in which blood is drawn in limited quantities from young animals (primarily sheep) loaned to the ranch from outside livestock operations. Over the course of one year, blood is drawn repeatedly from these donor sheep; approximately once every 28 days. They are cared for, sheltered and fed, and eventually returned to their original owners — very much alive.
"We have a very strong relationship with the sheep breeders who have been coming back to us for 20 years," Micks said. "The sheep are all ewe (female) lambs, which we receive when they are around 8 months of age. The owners do not want the ewe lambs in their first year because they are too young to safely lamb."
"Over the course of a year we'll put on 40-50 pounds of gain on the lambs," Micks added. "We don't skimp on the feed. In October we sell them back to their initial owners as yearling ewes. They just come here for a year, then they go back and are bred for the next 10 years. Killing them would not make financial sense."
The emphasis in Quad Five's operating model is squarely focused upon the health of the animals. A healthy animal will provide a better blood product, and because they are obtained as lambs, Quad Five can better guarantee that the blood they obtain is free from antibiotics and growth hormones — contaminants that can foul the results obtained from blood agar plates used for medical diagnostic testing.
In total, Quad Five maintains a flock of around 7,500 sheep from which they draw approximately 1,500 liters (roughly 400 gallons) of blood each week. Blood products are also drawn from the ranch's 600 goats, 85 horses and 50 head of cattle.
All of this is done under the close scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and independent auditors who can arrive unannounced to inspect the facility at any moment.
"The USDA comes at least once a year to look at the facilities and all the animal housing," Tonjum said. "We probably have half a dozen on-site audits a year where companies from all over the world inspect our facilities. We have some of the biggest players in the world that buy blood from this facility. The scrutiny comes in a measure far beyond anything most livestock producers will ever have to experience."
The bleeding process itself is surprisingly sedate.
The sheep are led into a narrow, sheltered corridor, eight at a time, where they are immobilized in a squeeze chute similar to a calf branding table. Once the ewes are rotated onto their sides, they immediately become docile, entering into a quiet torpor — a characteristic of the animals that shearers have known for centuries.
There is no bleating or struggle in the blood drawing room. The ewes' heads are restrained with a rope to prevent the needle from being dislodged. The wool around their throat is shaved and antiseptic is swabbed across the extraction site. Then a 16-gauge needle — about the same diameter as those used for human blood draws — is inserted into their jugular vein.
A vacuum pump draws about a liter of blood into a sterilized plastic bag, while their human attendants watch the animals closely for any signs of adverse effects. The whole process takes about five minutes.
Once the blood draw is completed the animals are released and wander, somewhat wobbly, out into a holding pen where they are held overnight for observation.
Back in the laboratory, the newly filled blood bags are placed into a plastic sack and put into an old clothes dryer where they are tumbled for several minutes. As the blood is tumbled the fibrin, or clotting factor, adheres to a small foam sponge contained within each blood bag. Removing the fibrin ensures the blood will remain in its liquid state prior to future processing.
The blood is then transferred into larger sterile bags and prepared for shipment according to the directions of the individual customer. Blood products are picked up each afternoon and flown out of Billings to different delivery points throughout the world.
Customers in North America can typically expect to receive Quad Five blood products less than 24 hours after they are drawn from the animal. Overseas deliveries are frozen and typically take two to four days to arrive.
On the day of the Tribune's visit, blood products were being prepared for shipment to customers in Thailand, Israel, Hong Kong and to the University of Toronto in Canada.
Quad Five employs 20 people, providing well-paying jobs in a community where independent employment is in short supply. Micks' own entry into the blood products industry came 27 years ago, when he was employed by Quad Five's original owner, Herman Wessel.
According to Micks, Wessel came to Golden Valley County in 1988 with the goal of establishing a lamb slaughter operation, but low market prices nearly put him out of business.
"He was bringing probably 50,000 head of sheep through here a year, but he couldn't make any money at it," Micks said of his former employer. "He was sending out one or two shipments a week, but he lost his tail."
Then, during an international flight, Wessel began a conversation with another passenger who suggested the sheep man look into harvesting the animals' blood for the diagnostic testing industry.
"Herm had no idea, and we started bleeding from ground zero," Micks recalled. "We began bleeding horses for an antibody product that was used to treat newborn foals for the failure of passive transfer (not enough antibody protection from the mother). We basically taught ourselves how to make this operation work."
Within two years, the Quad Five had shifted its major focus of operations toward blood products. Today they manufacture 110 different blood fraction products.
Micks said that it's difficult for him to believe the career path his life has taken. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in animal science, but the potential for him to earn a living selling blood products never entered his mind.
"I cannot believe I'd ever have a calling to do this," Micks said. "I took microbiology as an elective course and I didn't do very well. I wish like hell I'd paid more attention in my biology courses."
The lessons Micks has learned through 25 years of on-the-job training have served both him, and thousands of unsuspecting patients, very well.
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com