A ‘Productive’ Endeavor: Veterinary Research In The Texas Panhandle

The VERO building

Identifying and solving problems that challenge the veterinary profession often require a team effort, which is why researchers in the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (SVMBS) Veterinary Education, Research, & Outreach (VERO) initiative are working in partnership with veterinary practitioners, animal scientists across the country, and the livestock industries to address issues that will make a significant difference in animal health and welfare.

“We view veterinarians as key partners in the overall mission to improve the health and well-being of livestock,” said Dr. Paul Morley, director of research at VERO. “A significant part of identifying the health issues that we address stems from veterinarians’ unique roles in the oversight and championing of the health and welfare of animals.”

Since Morley joined VERO in 2019, he has been a big champion of fulfilling the SVMBS’ mission of “Serving Every Texan Every Day”—which is also central to Texas A&M University’s mission as a land-grant university.

Key to that has been developing a research program that strives to be productive, impactful, and collaborative. And in just three short years, VERO’s research has had success in all three of those dimensions.

“It’s pretty remarkable that since September 2020, when we moved into the new VERO building, we went from four faculty and one staff member to 21 faculty and over a dozen staff, including the two new faculty we hired on the research team in 2021, Dr. Robert Valeris-Chacin and Dr. Matthew Scott,” Morley said. “The entire team has been highly successful, as shown by our active grants in 2021 and 2022, which total $4.9 million. In addition, since 2019, VERO faculty have published 53 peer-reviewed publications.

“While there are four faculty who have a predominantly research-associated appointment, all of the faculty working at VERO have scholarly activity as part of their roles,” he said. “So the entire VERO team is contributing to the research mission.”

Solving Problems Through Discovery

As an epidemiologist whose research interests have always been driven by the livestock industry’s needs, Morley sees the primary goal of VERO scientists as pursuing research that will improve the prosperity of the Texas Panhandle’s rural communities and livestock industries; they do that, he says, by examining issues that advance animal, human, and environmental health and that are important on all levels—locally, nationally, and globally.

“We strive to make a global impact, to translate our discoveries into products of knowledge and innovation,” Morley said.

As such, the VERO research team is tackling a wide range of topics, including respiratory and gastrointestinal health, microbial ecology, antimicrobial resistance, food safety, genomics and transcriptomics, lameness, and reproduction.

Of particular interest—both to VERO researchers and the livestock industries—is bovine respiratory disease (BRD), a problem that is critical to Texas agriculture and the state at large. Because BRD is both a health and an economic problem within cattle production, six of the VERO team’s nine United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded studies focus on that issue.

In another federally funded project, the Food and Drug Administration issued a call for grants to address the problem of liver abscesses in cattle, and the Texas Cattle Feeders Association approached SVMBS scientists to lead in writing this grant, which was supported by representatives from the three largest cattle feeding companies in the world and the largest veterinary consulting groups.

That $500,000 grant led to a trial in which VERO researchers—working with livestock producers—are examining whether using lower amounts of antibiotics can be equally effective in preventing liver abscesses. The project is being conducted in partnership with faculty at West Texas A&M University (WT), Colorado State University, and Michigan State University.

“The Food and Drug Administration, and the public, would like us to use fewer antimicrobial drugs, and the industry is interested in doing that,” Morley said. “This example highlights the successes of how the industry came to us with a problem and asked us to help, and then we worked as an integrated team to address the issue.”  

Also important to Morley is that VERO researchers employ cutting-edge technology such as molecular biology and super computers to study the genomics and gene expression of animals and their microbiome.

“We’re looking at the overall health of animals and approaching long-standing, important problems in really novel ways. For example, we are using state-of-the-art sequencing technology to investigate the entire microbial community, the microbiome, in relation to infectious diseases by focusing on one particular bacterium,” Morley said. “By using these cutting-edge techniques, we have new insight on problems that have plagued animal production and veterinary medicine for 50 years.”

Also demonstrating this holistic approach are projects involving several VERO faculty who are working in partnership with colleagues from other universities, including WT professor Dr. John Richeson and Mississippi State’s Dr. Amelia Woolums, investigating the use of antibiotics in cattle for the prevention of respiratory disease. 

“We know that some antibiotics are associated with better health outcomes, but we have not really looked at their effects holistically, comparing how they affect the composition of the microbiome and the likelihood of promoting antimicrobial resistance across all bacteria,” Morley said. “Additionally, our collaborative team is learning that some of these drugs have impacts outside of their antimicrobial effects—they influence the immunity and inflammation pathways. Some drugs may show greater benefits because they also decrease inflammation and improve immune responses.”

Collaborating For A Healthier Future

Dr. Paul Morley working in a lab

These projects highlight the significance of collaboration for VERO researchers, according to Morley.

“VERO and WT researchers collaborated to develop the research strategy. Dr. Richeson developed a cooperative agreement with one of the largest feedlot companies, Cactus Feeders, to loan us the cattle to do this trial. He and the WT researchers are managing the cattle at the WT feedlot, and graduate students from Texas A&M and WT will be using this study as part of their dissertations,” Morley said.

“This study involves giving six different antimicrobial drugs to cattle and then looking at the effects on microbial ecology and even at the host genes that are turned on or off in association with these different treatments, which can affect the animals’ ability to fight infections and disease,” he said. “We’re using genomic tools to investigate antimicrobial resistance in the context of entire microbial communities, the microbiome, in both the respiratory tract and the feces,” he said. “This study is really unique, and I think it shows the impact of working in a highly collaborative team to address important questions about the use of antibiotics in cattle.”

This kind of project is possible because the VERO faculty’s location in Canyon, on the WT campus, provides an advantage that is unequaled at any other veterinary college.

“We are so fortunate to be embedded here,” Morley said. “This area is so rich in terms of agriculture and animal production. One-quarter of the nation’s finished beef supply is produced within a two-hour drive of Canyon, about 7 million cattle annually, and there are about 600,000 lactating dairy cows in the region. This beef production contributed about $16.5 billion to the U.S. economy and dairy production about $1.5 billion.

“We get to work very, very closely with colleagues in College Station, but also with scientists from WT, the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, Texas A&M AgriLife, and the tremendous agriculture companies in this region,” he said. “The WT partnership is particularly special for VERO because it brings another 30 or so agriculture-focused faculty with diverse expertise into our collaboration. It creates this wonderful synergy in less than a quarter of a mile running up and down Russell Long Boulevard.”

Teaching The Next Generation Of Veterinary Scientists

An important aspect of the VERO program is its ability to expose students to research.

When the fall semester begins, the growing VERO team will include six Texas A&M-enrolled doctoral students, two WT doctoral students, and four WT master’s students.

VERO has hosted SVMBS Veterinary Medical Scientist Research Training Program participants; this program is near and dear to Morley’s heart, as he participated in the program when he was in veterinary school and says it was “very important in making decisions about what I wanted to do in the future.” He now sees the launch of the SVMBS’ 2+2 DVM program as an opportunity to introduce research to Texas A&M veterinary students in the Panhandle. 

“The veterinary curriculum offers electives around research exposure at College Station. We will be doing the very same thing here,” he said. “Our 2+2 students will be trained in every aspect of veterinary medicine that students in College Station students are trained in.

“But for our 2+2 students, it’s like living next to the ice cream store; you get the advantage of living next to all of the amazing animal production units in the region and having access to the research work that we’re conducting. We will be able to take them on as hourly employees and summer students,” he continued. “They also will be exposed to the research through our seminars, so we’ll be bringing these brand-new ideas into the training of veterinary students.

“I can’t wait to begin exposing these students to the research that we’re doing so that maybe when they finish their veterinary degree, they’ll want to come back as Ph.D. or master’s students.”

Regardless of whether Texas A&M’s DVM students choose a career in research or as a practicing veterinarian, this exposure to research can ultimately benefit their future career.

“The Veterinarian’s Oath calls veterinarians to pursue career-long advancement of their knowledge. Veterinarians are scientists; they’re health professionals,” Morley said. “Exposing them to how we generate new ideas, how we use other people’s research through the literature, and how we use our own research to ask and answer questions will set an example for them about how they can pursue becoming better healthcare professionals for the well-being of animals and people.”

Looking Toward A ‘Productive’ Future

close-up of Morley as he works in the lab

As VERO researchers continue to focus on solving the most pressing issues that challenge the livestock and agricultural industries, they plan to do so using the same collaborative approach they use to conduct their research.

Recently, VERO faculty and SVMBS leadership met with a team of internationally recognized experts in veterinary medicine and cattle production to develop a strategic vision for future growth and success of the VERO research mission. 

“We’re not working in isolation; we need the input of experts in the field to help us make sure we are engaged in work that is most important to our stakeholders,” Morley said. “The strategic focus of the VERO research team is to deliver highly impactful research in the areas of disease prevention and mitigation, food safety, antimicrobial use and alternatives, genomics, and other cutting-edge diagnostic technologies, which will all support more sustainable cattle production systems and an abundant and healthy food supply. We strive to make impactful differences by translating discovery into products of knowledge and innovation.”

Ultimately, Morley sees the results of that meeting leading the VERO research team to double the work they’re currently doing.

“It’s incredible what we’ve been able to achieve so far, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that we will have twice as much annual productivity around grants and projects and the training of graduate students in the next few years,” he said. “We want to be viewed as a center of excellence that’s recognized regionally, nationally, and globally for the work that we’re doing—impacting the health of animals and promoting societal well-being through the production of healthy, wholesome food.”


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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