Inside the daily packages received by the Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center is a Styrofoam tray neatly dividing a portion of cow liver, a tiny cross-section of spleen and a big chunk of lung tissue, along with a brief description explaining the how.
“Owner found cow dead after 2 p.m. this afternoon,” read the pathologist’s report. “Was fine four hours previous. No sign of struggle at time of death. Two incisors of four found loose. Chest multifocal. Dark firm masses present in lungs, pus draining from heart.”
But what the pathologists, microbiologists and lab technicians at the vet diagnostic center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are searching for is the why.
The new, $45 million center will play a key role in speeding up that rate of discovery for meat animal producers around the state and across the country, according to university scientists.
Largely funded through state tax dollars, with 10 percent secured in private funding, the new diagnostic center replaces a 1975 building rendered obsolete by increased demand from producers, accreditation agencies and new regulations imposed by the federal government.
“As things progressed and the diagnostic lab became more widely used and responsibilities increased, we kind of grew out of that space,” said Bruce Brodersen, a pathologist and case coordinator at the lab.
UNL shut down its Panhandle Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Scottsbluff and its West Center Veterinary Science Laboratory in North Platte in 2002 during the last major budget crunch faced by the university, leaving the Lincoln facility the last of its kind in the state.
“There were a lot of ticked-off cowboys in the state,” said Pete MyClymont, the executive vice president of the Nebraska Cattlemen, who make up more than half of the caseload taken on by the diagnostic center at any given time.
In 2012, then-Sen. Tom Hansen asked the Legislature to fund a new state-of-the-art diagnostic center, that along with three other projects became the “Building a Healthier Nebraska” initiative.
The diagnostic center is the third leg of the initiative to open after the Health Science Education Center at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2015 and the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha earlier this year.
The last piece of the initiative, a College of Nursing project under construction at UNL, is set to open next year.
McClymont said the new veterinary diagnostic center will play a key role in supporting the state’s largest economic sector. When the Nebraska Cattlemen learned of the project and its need for funding, he said support was nearly unanimous.
“I have never seen our membership give to a brick-and-mortar project like this,” he said. “We usually give to scholarships or other things, but our state organization and 42 local affiliates stepped up and did amazing things.”
The center’s staff of 30 began moving into the new facility last week, Brodersen said, and work processing new cases has already begun.
Future veterinarians at UNL's East Campus will also call the new center home beginning this fall as they study microbiology, pathology and parasitology in their second year before transferring to Iowa State University as part of a joint program.
Just inside the main entrance is the Dennis and Glenda Boesiger Family Learning Center, a state-of-the-art classroom space with projection screens and adjustable furniture named for the Lincoln business owners, while a teaching lab has stations for up to 32 students.
Down a hallway from the classroom are offices for faculty and veterinary residents the center hopes to hire in the future to provide expertise on specific issues, Brodersen said.
But it’s the second-floor labs where the bulk of the veterinary diagnostic center’s mission takes place.
Two receiving areas are responsible for documenting the 50-80 samples the center creates new case numbers for each day, or for managing postmortem examinations on animals that have succumbed to disease.
Vets across the country mail a variety of samples to the center each day, such as organ tissue from diseased cattle or hogs and tumor biopsies from companion animals such as cats and dogs.
Not far away is a two-story necropsy lab complete with freezers and smaller examination rooms capable of receiving whole animals of varying sizes — even something as tall as a giraffe, if necessary — from a vehicle loading dock for postmortem study.
Once the center is fully operational, Brodersen said, staff will use bar codes on each sample to track the sample’s progress throughout the bacteriology and virology labs using displays resembling an arrival and departure schedule at an airport.
When the sample is received into the Veterinary Diagnostic Center’s system, technicians can quickly prepare it for study under a microscope using a series of specialized instruments in the histology lab before the sample goes to the joint virology and bacteriology labs.
Brodersen said the two labs were once separate, but with new high-tech equipment needed by both, they now share wide space filled with work benches and lab hoods.
Other labs used by the diagnostics staff include a biosafety level 3 lab to isolate animals with potentially lethal diseases, and a molecular diagnostics lab used to extract and amplify genetic material for study.
As part of the $45 million price tag, the new facility is outfitted with new equipment that will expand the diagnostic center’s potential, Brodersen said.
“Some of the pieces of equipment will provide more rapid turnaround time for results,” Brodersen said. “What used to take two or three days to get a result will take a day instead, so those veterinarians whose livestock are sick can implement treatment protocols more quickly.”
The quick turnaround could make all the difference to producers, McClymont said.
“A diagnosis and treatment that keeps your herd alive and healthy is the difference between a profitable year and possibly even just staying in the business,” he said.