Texas A&M GI Lab Research Unraveling Medical Mysteries, Ensuring Animal Health

Story by Courtney Price, VMBS Communications

Researchers in white lab coats looking at a chart on a computer
Dr. Amanda Blake and Dr. Jörg Steiner discuss some statistics with student researchers in the GI Lab.
Photos by Jason Nitsch ’14, Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences

Gastrointestinal disorders are some of the most common health problems facing pets today. In fact, more than 10% of all new visits to a veterinarian are related to GI disease in both dogs and cats, according to Dr. Jörg Steiner, a Universrity Distinguished Professor at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (VMBS) and director of the school’s Gastrointestinal Laboratory (GI Lab).

“Ten percent may not sound like a lot, but that includes wellness visits and vaccinations,” he said. “Every veterinarian is touched by it.”

Even so, most people don’t realize that GI problems affect many organs.

“The term gastrointestinal means different things to different people,” Steiner said. “At the GI Lab, it means that we deal with anything that’s related to the gastrointestinal system, which is everything from the esophagus to the intestines and colon. But it also includes the liver and pancreas. As long as it touches on one of those organs, we’re involved.”

As such, the GI Lab at Texas A&M is a global center for diagnostics and research related to gastrointestinal issues, primarily in animals.

They service veterinary clinics all over the world that need samples analyzed for research or diagnosing patients. The lab’s scientists also conduct their own primary research, including testing new drugs, testing new pet foods, and searching for better ways to aid in patient diagnosis and recovery.

Making The Most Of A Global Network

As a lab that services both the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) and other veterinarians around the country, the GI Lab is uniquely situated to study a wide variety of GI health problems.

“We probably have the largest access to clinical cases of anyone in the world,” Steiner said. “Not only do we have access to local clinical cases, but we also have access to samples from around 100,000 animals a year that have gastrointestinal diseases. If you’re trying to study a disease and you have that many patients, your chances of finding 20 or 30 cases of one disease are very good. By comparison, the entire vet school only sees about 28,000 cases a year.”

The additional cases that come in from around the world help guarantee that the GI Lab will get the number it needs to make meaningful assessments.

“For example, there is a new virus recently discovered in Australia that we learned is connected to liver cancer,” he explained. “We were able to collect about 30 cases of liver cancer in cats thanks to our connections, versus the one or two cases we might have found had we only looked at one vet school.

“If we’d only found a couple of cats positive for the virus, that wouldn’t have been enough information to draw conclusions,” he said. “But because we had 30 cases, and one-quarter were positive, that became meaningful information.”

Researcher working in a lab
Jasmine Thweatt

When it comes to testing out new medical drugs, numbers once again play an important role.

“For a treatment trial, you may need 30 or 40 cases to show whether a new drug works well,” Steiner said. “And you have to be able to gather those cases in a reasonable amount of time. A single institution might need 20 years to gather all those cases, but we can do it much faster.”

The large number of cases is not the only advantage that the GI Lab has; with nine full-time faculty members, it also has one of the largest gastroenterologist teams in the world. When you include graduate students, postdocs, and staff members, the number is closer to 80 people.

“Most groups that do GI research have only one or two people,” Steiner explained. “It’s usually two clinical scientists and they may work together with a pathologist. We’re the only lab with the kind of depth needed to have special research groups.”

Conducting Cutting-Edge Research

Besides servicing veterinary clinics, the GI Lab is involved with a wide variety of research projects.

“At any given time, we’re involved in more than 100 research projects,” Steiner said. “Half of those come from within the GI Lab — meaning our faculty do the research. Then, there’s another 20% that comes from faculty at the VMTH who utilize our technology. The rest come from collaborative researchers who are at other universities or private companies.”

The GI Lab conducts research mainly in three areas: etiology, diagnostics, and therapeutic research.

“Etiology is the search for causes,” Steiner said. “It includes questions like, how does an animal get a disease? Why does it happen? What nutritional deficiency or genetic mutation is causing it?”

The biggest area of research for the lab is diagnostics, which involves detecting and identifying illnesses through the use of novel diagnostic tools.

“Many diseases in veterinary medicine lack good diagnostic tests,” Steiner said. “We usually develop about two new tests a year, but only 10% of new tests turn out to be really useful. It’s a painful development path because you have to think of new ideas, develop the tool, and then test it. They typically don’t turn out to be as helpful as we were hoping, but the ones that do can make a real difference in how veterinarians in everyday practice diagnose those diseases.”

The last major area of research that the lab is involved with is therapeutic research.

“Many diseases don’t have a specific treatment,” Steiner explained. “For those that don’t, we can only do what we call management — we support the body while we wait for it to heal itself. Or we can reduce the severity of symptoms. So there is a real need to find better therapeutic tools. For example, we often work with pet food companies to look at novel diets that help manage certain diseases. Other times, we work with drug manufacturers.”

Many of the research projects at the GI Lab are at the cutting edge of veterinary medicine.

Two researchers looking at cells on a computer
Steiner and Kelly Mallett, supervisor of the histopathology lab, examine an intestinal biopsy.

“One of our projects was to support a pharmaceutical company who just received conditional approval for a drug that is the first treatment of pancreatitis in any species,” Steiner said. “That treatment doesn’t even exist yet in humans. We try to be on the forefront of research.”

While pancreatitis treatments in humans may not be available yet, there are other projects going on at the lab that do translate from animal to human medicine.

For example, one project at the lab works with copper hepatopathy, which is called Wilson’s disease when it occurs in humans. People and animals with this disease can’t rid their bodies of excess copper, which causes liver problems and significant mortality.

“There are some new treatments for copper hepatopathy in dogs on the horizon,” Steiner said. “These treatments would be much faster, possibly getting rid of all the copper in the patient’s liver in two weeks. We could actually keep human patients from ever needing a liver transplant if we were to use these treatments in human Wilson’s disease patients. If the treatment works for dogs, it may also work for people.”

Envisioning The Future Of GI Research

Even though the GI Lab is already a one-of-a-kind research institution, Steiner isn’t interested in coasting on the lab’s existing reputation. His current focus is hiring more faculty, including multiple full-time veterinary nutritionists to work in the lab and launch a clinical nutrition program.

Having nutritionists would significantly enhance the lab’s ability to study the whole picture of GI diseases.

“Most people know basic nutrition principles, like eating less sugar,” Steiner said. “But they don’t know how to put it into scientific terms. In general, the same is true for veterinarians. If a patient has a GI disease that causes diarrhea, they could tell the owner to try a diet with certain proteins, but they wouldn’t necessarily know the nitty-gritty details behind how that diet works. That’s where the nutritionist comes in.”

Nutrition is a vital component of treating almost any kind of health problem.

“If you are hit by a car, nutrition is really crucial for your body to be able to heal itself quickly,” Steiner said. “Or if you have pancreatitis, you don’t want to end up making it worse by having the wrong components in your diet. So, nutrition touches every aspect of health.”

Nutritionists aren’t the only people Steiner hopes to hire in the future. By bringing on pathologists and a statistician epidemiologist, the GI Lab will be prepared to stay at the forefront of research and continue training students and junior researchers.

“The goal of the GI Lab is really to train the next generation of clinician scientists,” Steiner said. “We want to be at the center of that movement.”


Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of VMBS Today.

For more information about the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of VMBS Communications, Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

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