A Sense of Cows

Armed with a good deal of cunning and creativity, a LEGO Mindstorm set and a sewing machine, graduate engineer Anders Fønss has managed to construct an automatic device for taking blood samples from cows. The first six have already been sold in the USA.

Nobody likes the prick of the needle when giving blood samples. Neither do cows.

It might come as a bit of a surprise that blood samples are taken from cows, but much research is carried out in cows, such as stress research where researchers need to see if the cows have stress hormones in their blood. Sometimes several blood samples are taken per day for several days running. This creates a number of practical problems, and the sampling bothers the cows.

Anders Fønss is a graduate engineer who has specialised in biotechnology and aquaculture. He originally began by investigating stress in fish and has also worked with needle pricks and micro dialysis in humans.

When in 2000, Anders Fønss found himself without a job, he contacted the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Foulum [now the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences], as he knew they worked with stress biology. And “the physiology relating to stress behaviour is more or less the same for cows and fish” as he puts it.

In Foulum, Anders Fønss met senior researcher Lene Munksgaard who works with stress and behavioural biology in cows. In May 2004, she employed Anders Fønss for six months to work with automatic blood-sampling in cows.

To make a long story short: armed with a good deal of cunning and creativity, a LEGO Mindstorm set and a sewing machine, Anders Fønss managed to construct an automatic device for taking blood samples from cows.

This is what happened:

Nervous cows

Fifty to sixty cows are kept together in large loose-housing yards. For safety reasons, in order to take blood samples from cows, it is necessary to isolate the cows in question and immobilise them. The yard has an enclosure, which is normally used by the vet when cows are inseminated. A cow is driven into the enclosure and towards a grid device, which immobilises the cow’s head as it lowers its head to feed.

A halter is then fitted, and the cow’s head is pushed to one side. A chain can be applied to make the large jugular vein stand out, and then it’s time to insert the needle.

If several samples are needed, a catheter can be placed in the neck, and this will last for about a week in the unclean yard environment. The catheter is rinsed with heparin to prevent the blood from coagulating.

“The cows don’t like it when strangers enter the yard and they easily become nervous,” says Anders Fønss. “When you walk amongst cows, you must make sure that they have a way out. A cow is a large, heavy animal and it will run straight through you if it becomes scared, whereas a horse would shy away.”

Consequently, it would be an enormous advantage for researchers if the long and tedious process could be simplified and automated. And so, Anders Fønss set to work. It turned out to be a bit of an obstacle race.

Sticky stuff

An automatic blood-sampling machine runs by means of three motors. It requires needles, a pump, hoses and bag for the blood, heparin and a carousel that can move the needle and the bags into place, ready for the next blood sample. Everything has to be sterile and it is essential to make sure the blood does not coagulate in the tubes or come into contact with mechanical components.

“Blood is nasty to work with; it is greasy and it coagulates, so I talked to an immunologist from the blood bank in Aalborg about how to make blood behave appropriately. The main issue is to maintain a clean tube from the animal to the point where the blood is distributed and to prevent the blood from coagulating and from blocking the pump,” Anders Fønss explains.

“I’m not an electronics engineer, and I spent an enormous amount of time figuring out how to control the process. But I read about LEGO Mindstorm RCX. What is fantastic about that is that you can construct something quickly, try out a couple of ideas and find out if they work. It is also dead easy to get the software to control the motors based on input from the sensors or the built-in timer.

For months after day one, I had a prototype, which we took to the yard, attached to the catheter and then took ten samples. It worked,” says Anders Fønss with evident pride in his voice.

The automated blood-sampling device also saves manpower, because it takes a quarter of an hour to take a manual blood sample from a cow.

Cows with backpacks

“They gave me some strange looks when I brought my LEGO to Foulum, but it got even worse when I turned up with my sewing machine,” says Anders Fønss with a laugh. The intention was to use the device in loose-housing yards and that is why he began thinking along the lines of backpacks:

“It has to be something that doesn’t bother the cows and without as much as a loose flap because then the other cows will nip at it and tear it off. The material has to be extremely strong,” says Anders Fønss, who eventually discovered Cordura – the material used for backpacks. He created three models on the sewing machine before he came up with something that worked. First he tried closing the backpacks with Velcro, but that did not work – it was much too exciting for the cows, who did not relent until they had pulled the Velcro apart. He ended up using so-called cable strips, which have to be cut open, and industrial strength zips.  A zip on its own was not enough – the cows managed to pull that open, too.

To protect the catheter, the backpack is equipped with a front piece against the cow’s neck. For that purpose he found a chest harness used for horses. It is made of Lycra and is therefore flexible and prevents the backpack from sliding. “I tied the backpack under the cow’s belly using two wide elastic bands and finally had a model that fitted properly,” says Anders Fønss.

Curious cows

The researchers were of course worried about how the cow itself and the other cows would react to the backpack, and in December 2004, they began carrying out a number of very thorough trials using both stress measurements and a wide range of behavioural studies:

“It turned out that there was a very strong reaction from the other cows for the first two hours. The cows found it quite exciting to pull and lick – at times the backpack was up to two kilos heavier from saliva when we took it off,” says Anders Fønss, “but then we left the backpack on for 24 hours and they got used to it.”

The cow now carries the backpack for two days before a trial. The catheter is inserted the day before and on the third day, the trial begins.

Concurrently with their development work, the researchers at Foulum applied for a patent to be able to prove that they got there first. Of course, they had also reported the result to the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences and had applied to the Danish Research Council for a grant for further development.

However, money was always the main problem. After the first eight months, Lene Munksgaard and Anders Fønss obtained additional funds for further technology development.

Immediately before his period of employment ended on 15 March 2007, they received funds from the Proof of Concept pool for another six months. In order to gain access to these funds, it was important to get a company involved to facilitate the final development and commercialisation of the project.

Eye-catcher

It turned out that IceRobotics, a Scottish company, was interested, and the parties signed a collaborative agreement. IcecRobotics sent an engineer to Denmark to work with Anders Fønss on a number of improvements to the device.

In January 2006, they had a prototype of a commercial version ready, and the researchers began testing the automatic blood-sampling device against the normal manual blood-sampling method.

A license agreement with IceRobotics was also signed in 2006.

In 2006, they had another breakthrough: Anders Fønss went to the USA, where the automatic blood-sampling equipment was introduced by IceRobotics at a large American Dairy Science Association conference. “We were lucky – nobody else had a product that was as eye-catching as ours. I was on my feet for three days talking about it and we sold six,” he says.

All in all, the future is looking bright despite all the financial hassle, so Anders Fønss has had four periods of employment in less than three years. He thinks that the approach to the allocation of money for research is too short-sighted and points out that it would be good if researchers had more peace and quiet to finalise their projects.

Anders Fønss did in fact get tired of being dependent on six-month employment periods and now works as a development engineer with Nilfisk-ALTO.

This story appeared in ”From Idea to Reality – 12 researcher stories” by Birgit Brunsted and Gert Balling (ed.) Copyright Birgit Brundsted and The National Network for Technology Transfer and Forlaget Hovedland 2008. Reprinted with permission. Photo by Henrik Petit. Find out more about the book ”From Idea to Reality – 12 researcher stories” at www.techtrans.dk.

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Revideret 02.12.2015