Capabilities Spotlight: Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center

by Katelyn Ideus | Director Strategic Communications & Engagement

Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center
Positioned within the land that serves as home to four cattle per person is a state-of-the-art facility on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s (UNL) East Campus that serves not only the state’s food producers but the nation’s — the Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center.
September 29, 2023

Lincoln, Neb. —In November 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden issued National Security Memorandum 16 (NSM-16), Strengthening the Security and Resilience of United States Food and Agriculture, which states: “The federal government will identify and assess threats, vulnerabilities and impacts from high-consequence and catastrophic incidents — including but not limited to those presented by CBRN threats, climate change, and cybersecurity — and will prioritize resources to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk.”

Through NSM-16 the Department of Defense (DOD) supports the broader federal government in navigating the challenges of defending U.S. food production and supply. It contributes to threat assessments on potential actors, delivery systems and methods that could be directed against or affect the food and agriculture sector.

With these requirements in hand, the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska (NU), one of only 15 DOD-designated University Affiliated Research Centers (UARC), sought capabilities from each of the four NU campuses to offer capacity and solutions to the DOD and its partners in this space. 

"We have a unique position as a trusted agent to the DOD and federal government through our special UARC status," said Dr. Neal Woollen, NSRI associate executive director. "And we have some of the leading capabilities and relationships with producers that are going to be essential to solving already complex and constantly evolving national security challenges across the food and agricultural industry. 

"The food and agriculture sector is part of this nation’s critical infrastructure. Enhancing readiness to deal with CBRN-related incidents, whether they emanate from natural, accidental or intentional causes, can result in an enhanced state of national resilience and also serve to deter bad actors."

A primary contributor of resources and established responsibilities for contributing to national efforts for food production safety is the Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center (NVDC).

About the Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center (NVDC)

Positioned within the land that serves as home to four cattle per person is a state-of-the-art facility on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s (UNL) East Campus that serves not only the state’s food producers but the nation’s — the NVDC.

Opened in 2017, the 65,000-square-foot facility was built to offer Nebraska and the agricultural industry an expanded, diverse testing services portfolio, innovations through applied research and a commitment to educating the next generation of veterinary practitioners and scientists. The NVDC effectively addresses emerging high-consequence diseases and foreign animal disease threats, in addition to routine animal health issues associated with contemporary food and animal safety to standards that meet and exceed American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians accreditation requirements.NVDC is directed by NSRI Fellow Dr. Dustin Loy, professor of veterinary microbiology. It employs modern testing procedures and biosecurity requirements to provide disease surveillance and diagnostic services for all animal species to veterinarians, livestock producers and researchers. The NVDC is recognized nationally for its expertise in diagnosing diseases in cattle and other food animals and is Nebraska's only veterinary diagnostic lab accredited by the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians and member of the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Health Laboratory Network.

NVDC offers a full complement of diagnostic services:  

  • Bacteriology
  • Histology and Immunohistochemistry
  • Pathology
  • Molecular Diagnostics
  • Serology
  • Virology

Laboratory cases are coordinated by and test results are interpreted by faculty veterinarians. Faculty diagnosticians have a wide range of nationally recognized expertise and most have specialized training and board certification in disciplines including pathology, microbiology and immunology. In total, the NVDC completes more than 16,000 accessions per year representing more than 500,000 tests.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture leverages many of these services through the NVDC’s partnership as a Level 1 National Animal Health Laboratory Network member, which provides specific capabilities and capacity for disease surveillance and diagnostics, including response capabilities.

"Our vision is to enhance the economic vitality and life quality for all Nebraskans by promoting healthy livestock and companion animals, enhancing the safety of animal-derived consumer products, protecting wildlife resources through enhancing understanding and control of disease," Dr. Loy said. "We provide our clients, including the veterinarians of the state, answers for everyday, or endemic, disease problems and connect them with resources to solve them and prevent them in the future. We also provide first-line support to both detect and report potential high consequence diseases, foreign animal diseases and One Health/Zoonotic diseases and work with our state and federal partners to ensure effective responses." 

Contributions to Science & Practice

Bovine pinkeye

This debilitating disease is primarily caused by Moraxella bovis, a tiny organism that, in the 21st century, results in annual losses to the cattle industry estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. NSRI Fellow Dr. Matt Hille, an assistant professor of veterinary medicine and biomedical sciences, headed the first long-term study of bovine pinkeye vaccines, identifying shortcomings in inoculation efficacy, which was published in 2022. Learn more >

Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus

UNL scientists have received a $627,000 federal grant to study a viral disease posing a significant threat to the swine industry worldwide. Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV) is widespread, causing reproductive failure in sows and major respiratory illness in pigs of all ages. In addition, the virus modulates the pig’s immune system, making the animal more susceptible to other infectious diseases. The costs to the U.S. swine sector from PRRSV annually total an estimated $1.1 billion. Learn more >

Covid response

When the UNL campus needed to increase the capacity for COVID-19 testing on campus, it tasked the NVDC with setting up a laboratory capable of processing and testing saliva samples. Unfinished space was quickly equipped to accommodate, and the reception area was shifted to provide a safe and isolated sample receiving area and certifications for testing were acquired. Since January 2021, the NVDC processed nearly 300,000 samples. The experience demonstrated the NVDC's responsiveness and quality assurance. 

Poised for the Future

A long-time, trusted contributor to the health and safety of the food and agriculture sector, the NVDC is positioned to lead research and science for decades to come. The NVDC facility is a testament to this commitment, bringing leading researchers and technology together to innovate forward for efficiency and discovery.

With continually growing research efforts, the facility also draws interests from perhaps the most important commodity of all — students.

To many DOD leaders, there is no more challenging an issue to national security than lack of future workforce. For NVDC, creating hands-on, collaborative research opportunities for students is a primary focus because it inspires and motivates the next generation of scientists.

Undergraduate students in the UNL College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources veterinary sciences program as well as veterinary students in the UNL professional program for veterinary medicine are key drivers for the success of the NVDC. Students gain experiential learning opportunities working with and around real-life animal health diagnostic challenges. They provide technical support through all areas of the laboratory, and many go on to become the front lines of the animal and one health response and capacity throughout Nebraska.

"Our graduates are essential to ensuring the health and safety of the nation’s food supply and are critical to ensuring the continued economic vitality of Nebraska," Dr. Loy said. "They are the first responders should any threat arise."

With the stage set and many significant contributions already in progress, the NVDC is poised to respond to DOD agency requirements, gaps and challenges.

"The opportunity to continue to provide expertise that can protect and enhance animal health and the nation’s food supply through animal agriculture is incredibly exciting to me," Dr. Loy said. "Ensuring a safe and healthy food supply through supporting rapid detection and surveillance for diseases of concern is a critical part of what we do."

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