GI Lab Works to Improve Companion Animal Health
May 11, 2010
"We're the only diagnostic laboratory in the world that focuses
solely on gastrointestinal diseases in companion animals," said Dr.
Jörg Steiner, associate professor of small animal internal medicine
and director of the Gastrointestinal Laboratory (GI Lab) at the
Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine &
Biomedical Sciences (CVM).
"The frequency of gastrointestinal diseases in dogs and cats is
very high," said Steiner, explaining the importance of focusing
attention on these diseases. "We're dealing with disorders that
have a huge impact on animals' lives and therefore peoples' lives.
For example, a lot of animals are abandoned because they have
chronic diarrhea. The owners can't deal with the economic and
emotional burden of the disease. If we can make these animals
better, we can save their lives."
Over the past 25 years, the GI lab has excelled at precisely
this mission. The lab has pioneered the development of tests for
the diagnosis of gastrointestinal diseases; has been involved in
research on the pathogenesis, genetic origin, diagnosis and
treatment of these diseases; and has contributed to training in
this field by establishing a combined PhD-residency program in
small animal gastroenterology, the only one of its kind in North
These noteworthy achievements began with a test developed in
1985 by Dr. David Williams, founder of the GI Lab at the University
of Florida, for diagnosing canine exocrine pancreatic
insufficiency, a disorder in which food digestion is impaired
because of a lack of pancreatic digestive enzymes. The lab then
moved several times, first to Kansas State University and then to
Purdue University. It was finally housed at Texas A&M in 1997.
Steiner assumed directorship of the GI Lab in 2005, replacing
Williams, who continues to be involved in the lab's service
Over the course of its lifetime, the lab has grown its
diagnostic repertoire to cover a range of tests for the assessment
of gastrointestinal health and disease. These include testing for
the vitamins cobalamin and folate, deficiencies of which are
associated with gastrointestinal disorders; tests for
gastrointestinal infections caused by protozoans and bacteria;
tests for pancreatitis; and tests for inflammatory markers of
chronic gastrointestinal disease, for example, C-reactive
Some of these tests are unique in that they are only available
through the GI Lab. Others, for example, the test for the diagnosis
of pancreatitis in dogs and cats, have become accepted as a gold
standard and have been licensed to commercial diagnostic
laboratories that can make them available to veterinarians
Staffed by a team of about 40 veterinary graduate students,
technicians, consultants and student workers, the lab processes
about 1000 samples a week sent in by veterinarians across the
"Although 99% of the service [the GI lab offers] is directed
toward cats and dogs, whenever there is somebody with a question
that they can't answer but believe that we can help them, we're
happy to work with them," said Steiner.
Over the years, this willingness to expand the reach of the
service has led to the GI lab being involved in the diagnosis of
pancreatitis in a sea lion, collaborating with a group in the
University of San Antonio to study gastrointestinal disease in
marmosets, and developing diagnostic tests for use in ferrets.
The lab also works toward enhancing patient care by providing
consultation services. Veterinarians who have submitted patient
samples for testing can discuss test results and treatment options
with the lab's board-certified internal medicine specialists.
Steiner's future goals include expanding the lab's research
focus to include the field of gastrointestinal endocrinology [the
study of hormones that regulate digestion].
"The gastrointestinal tract is considered to be the largest
endocrine gland in the body. And yet the only endocrine diseases of
the gastrointestinal tract that we know of are diabetes mellitus,
caused by an underproduction of insulin, or tumors, leading to an
overproduction of gut hormones. We do not know of any
gastrointestinal disease associated with the underproduction of
other gut hormones, for example, the underproduction of gastrin,
cholecystokinin or somatostatin. These diseases have not been
described either in people or in dogs and cats. So one of my goals
is to look at this interesting research area."
The lab's other goals include establishing the world's first
institute of companion animal gastroenterology as well as a chair
in this field and a fund for conducting collaborative research and
purchasing new equipment.
Fulfillment of these goals requires funding, which has so far
been a challenge.
Steiner hopes that "individual endowments from one or several
people will help catapult these programs forward" and in doing so
will help support a lab that through its research is committed to
helping "promote gastrointestinal health in companion animals on a
Angela G. Clendenin
Director, Communications & Public Relations
Ofc - (979) 862-2675
Cell - (979) 739-5718
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