USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) animal scientist Kip Panter is helping to develop new techniques for treating cleft palates in humans. The October 2009 "Healthy Animals Newsletter" says that Panter works at the ARS Poisonous Plant Research Laboratory in Logan, Utah, where he studied why cows that graze on toxic lupines often give birth to calves affected by "crooked calf disease." These calves are usually born alive at full term, but they can have a number of skeletal defects, including contracture deformities and cleft palate.
Panter found that pregnant cows usually begin to graze on lupines at the same time their unborn calves begin movements essential for normal development. During this time — which is also when the two palatal shelves close to form the roof of the mouth — toxins in the lupines can cross the placental barrier and temporarily induce fetal immobility. If the fetus isn't physically active during this interlude, the position of the tongue prevents palatal closure, and a cleft palate results.
Panter used these findings as a basis for developing a goat model to study the cause of cleft palates in the unborn kid goats. These animals were then used to test methods for prenatal cleft repair surgery. Prenatal surgery is risky for both mother and fetus, and these techniques are not approved yet for use in humans. However, this research could provide plastic surgeons with alternatives for repairing cleft-affected humans if and when other protocols for human fetal surgery are available.