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Faculty Spotlight: PDPS Professor Jim Petitte Works with Transgenic Poultry

Dr. Pettite

NC State Prestage Department of Poultry Science (PDPS) Professor Jim Petitte received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology from Susquehanna University, Pennsylvania in 1979.  In 1981, he received a Master of Science Degree in Animal and Veterinary Science from University of Maine, Orono, Maine.  In 1986, Petitte completed his Ph.D in Animal and Poultry Reproduction from the University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario.

Petitte came to NC State to work on his postdoctoral research in Biotechnology. “In 1990, Transgenic poultry was just coming into the field.  NC State was one of the places that I had applied that was interested in this type of study,” Petitte said.

Currently, Petitte is working with a team from NC State and Duke University and using poultry as a model for human disease, specifically ovarian cancer.

He said, “Understanding germ cells and germ cell development is crucial because that’s the target cell for creating transgenic poultry.  Germ cells actually stem cells but they only give rise to eggs or sperm.  So, over the last couple of decades, we have been working with avian stem cells of all types.  Research never goes in a straight line.”

Petitte said that he and his colleagues have observed that women who take oral contraceptives are at less risk of developing ovarian cancer after menopause — this is due to the estrogen and progesterone uptake.  He hypothesized that if we were to feed chickens and leave out the progesterone, then the chicken would be less likely to develop ovarian cancer.

“During this entire process, we have learned that chickens give off the disease just like women — it is the same cell type, the same genetic mutations in the tumors, etc.; there are really just a lot of similarities, which superficially, you would not expect,” Petitte said.

Once these characteristics were observed and noted, Petitte joined together with the Chemistry Department at NC State W.M. Keck FTMS Laboratory directed by Dr. David Muddiman to look for biomarkers circulating in the blood as a way of early detection.  For long periods of time, cells were sampled. Through proteomics analysis which helps identify proteins that go up in circulation as a bird or group of birds acquires ovarian cancers, Petitte, and his team were able to identify these potential biomarkers.

“People have this idea that we have found the ‘cure’ for ovarian cancer but that is not it. We are focusing on prevention and early detection, such as an annual screen test of blood or a mammogram,” he said.

Although these discoveries have been made, it will still be many more years until they can fully prove that the biomarkers are clinically useful.

“When you are a scientist, you cannot be emotionally wedded to your favorite hypothesis. You have to recognize what the data is telling you and go with what it says. Otherwise, you are going to end up at a dead end,” he said.

Petitte said that by being in a department like PDPS where there are separate focuses allows for students to be enthusiastic about poultry.  “When you are in a mixed department, you tend to get people grouped by species.  Within PDPS, the more open environment allows for the recognition of the value of poultry from the students.”

“Poultry is an opportunity and it is an opportunity that most people do not think about.  It can lead to many different pathways, but it is our job to make that known,” Petitte said.