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Minnesota couple helps with finding a cure for Huntington's Disease with their special sheep

Lynn and Jason Kotrba have a personal connection with Huntington's Disease and wanted to help with the potentially life-saving Huntington's Disease research.

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Jason Kotrba feeds his flock of white faced polypay sheep during a cold winter's day. Photo taken Nov. 18, 2022, in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Emily Beal / Agweek
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MOORHEAD, Minn. — While thinking of livestock and agriculture, the phrase "food, fuel and fiber" is often used. However, Lynn and Jason Kotrbas’ flock of sheep are adding pharmacy to that list.

To the unsuspecting eye, the sheep look like typical barnyard animals while grazing from the pasture. But these sheep may be the answer to finding a cure for Huntington’s Disease and other neurological diseases.

The Kotrbas’ purchased land outside of Moorhead, Minnesota, and created Harvest Hope Farm in 2017. Their farm is a non-profit that focuses on two areas — offering summer camps to children and something more important: conducting research for Huntington’s Disease.

Lynn has a close connection to the neurological disease, and that has served as an inspiration to the family to help find a cure.

“Lynn's family had been affected with Huntington's Disease for a long time, and her mom and her sister both died when they were 49 years old. Upon purchasing the farm, we always knew we needed to do something more and something special with it,” Jason Kotrba said.

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White faced polypay sheep produce excess sugar, which individuals with Huntington's Disease underproduce. Photo taken Nov. 18, 2022, in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Emily Beal / Agweek

The pair’s niece shared an article on Facebook about how sheep were being used in research to find a cure for Huntington’s. They immediately knew they needed to be a part of the research. GlycoScience Research, based out of South Dakota, is the entity conducting the studies. Lynn wasted no time in reaching out to GlycoScience Research, but was turned away the first time. But she did not take no for an answer.

Harvest Hope Farm was given an original flock of 13 white-faced polypay sheep. This breed is known for producing extra sugar molecules, which can help those who are diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease and other neurological diseases.

“While all mammals make GM1, these sheep actually overproduce it. And why that's important is because certain people who have diseases like Huntington's Disease, they actually underproduce it. So their goal is, if we can harvest the over-production made by these sheep, we can use that molecule to help treat individuals with Huntington's, Parkinson's and other neurological diseases,” Kim Vonnahme said.

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Kim Vonnahme is the co-chair of the board for Harvest Hope Farm and an animal scientist. Photo taken Nov. 18, 2022 in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Emily Beal / Agweek

Vonnahme is the co-chair of the board for Harvest Hope Farm. She is also an adjunct professor at North Dakota State University and an animal scientist. She has been an integral part in the research side of things at Harvest Hope Farm. The excess sugar that has been harvested from the sheeps’ brains and spinal cords has stopped the effects of Huntington’s Disease in mice — a huge step forward in the fight against Huntington’s.

Their original flock of 13 pregnant polypays has grown close to 100. They lamb out their ewes on the farm each spring and hope their offspring carry the excess sugar molecules they are looking for.

“In certain instances where it has been tested in animal models, it can slow down, stop or reverse the effects of Huntington’s,” Vonnahme said. “Hopefully these sheep … will be picked up by someone to help us move to the next level.”

The next level would be moving towards a clinical trial and seeing if their efforts can help humans with neurological diseases, including Huntington’s.

Jason Kortba was never able to meet his mother-in-law due to her passing away from Huntington’s, but he did meet and get to know his sister-in-law well. The research they are a part of is in honor of both of the women. He hopes to continue to expand their flock and help with the research in any way they can.

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“Our ultimate goal is to grow a herd large and substantial enough to be able to make a real difference in finding a cure for Huntington’s Disease,” Kotrba said.

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Jason Kotrba hopes to grow his family's flock of polypays substantially in the future to help with Huntington's Disease research. Photo taken Nov. 18, 2022, in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Emily Beal / Agweek

Emily grew up on a small grains and goat farm in southern Ohio. After graduating from The Ohio State University, she moved to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a career in ag journalism with Agweek. She enjoys reporting on livestock and local agricultural businesses.
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