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Could Research on Alpacas Cure Human Diseases?

Dr. Andrew Merriwether and his wife Ann own an alpaca farm in Vestal.

Every summer, it draws many curious onlookers. But there is more than meets the eye.

"He's Farmer Andy, doing all the farming stuff. And then he's Geneticist Andy, he's in the lab," said Ann Merriwether.

"There are lots of people who raise alpacas, and lots of geneticists. But I don't think there are any other geneticists who own alpacas and understand their uses," said Andrew Merriwether.

Dr. Merriwether is looking for the gene for a fatal disease that affects both humans and alpacas: Choanal Atresia.

The disease leaves babies unable to breathe through their nose, and it is one of the most common serious diseases in alpacas.

"Alpaca breeders don't want this to happen. It's sad and traumatic to lose the babies," said Dr. Merriwether.

By studying the genetics of alpacas, we can gain insight into the genetics of humans.

"For humans, if we understand what causes it we find the gene and we understand why the gene makes it happen, maybe we can make that gene not happen," said Dr. Merriwether.

Dr. Merriwether works in his lab at Binghamton University. When he acquires an alpaca affected by Choanal Atresia, he takes a blood sample, separates the blood from the DNA and then analyzes it.

"If we're really lucky, it might lead to a treatment or a cure," said Dr. Merriwether.

Dr. Merriwether estimates he needs 50 families, each with one affected offspring. So far he has 30 families. On Thursday, a new alpaca baby was born.

With even more alpaca families, Dr. Merriwether could start looking for genes for other diseases that are more common in humans, such as cataracts and heart murmurs.

"You hope to do things that help other people," said Dr. Merriwether.

In Vestal, Samantha McDonald, Fox 40 HD news.

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