Texas A&M, Cornell Collaborate to Advance Education Research, Expand Pipeline for Underrepresented Students

Texas A&M and Cornell universities have joined forces to advance research on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in veterinary medical education and to expand the pipeline for underrepresented students in the field.

Funded by a $300,000 federal grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), researchers from both universities will work together to develop and study the impact of a comprehensive collection of competency-based educational resources on antimicrobial resistance to aid veterinary education programs throughout the United States.

The three-year grant will finance research focused on the development of multidisciplinary, problem-based lessons on antimicrobial resistance, the creation of an online platform to share educational resources with all veterinary colleges in the U.S., and expanding the pipeline for underrepresented student populations regarding career opportunities in food and agricultural sciences, veterinary medicine, and public health.

“Antimicrobial resistance poses an increasingly serious threat to global health, and veterinarians must be properly equipped to assume leadership roles in addressing this challenge,” said Dr. Kevin Cummings, principal investigator for Cornell University. “Crucial to the success of the AMR mitigation effort is the need to educate a wide variety of stakeholders about proper antimicrobial stewardship in production agriculture.”

Nicola Ritter, principal investigator for Texas A&M University and director of the Center for Educational Technologies (CET), housed in Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), will lead efforts to create the online platform and implement the outreach campaign. The CET will share the lessons created from this project with all U.S. veterinary colleges on an open, online platform.

As a part of the outreach campaign, the Texas A&M team also will share lessons on antimicrobial-resistance topics suitable for undergraduate audiences to four universities within the Texas A&M System that have significant under-represented student populations, including Prairie View A&M University, West Texas A&M University, Texas A&M Kingsville, and Tarleton State University.

“The undergraduate outreach campaign dovetails well with Texas A&M’s initiative to expand veterinary education, research, and outreach into several rural areas of Texas with under-represented student populations,” said Ritter, who is also an instructional assistant professor in the CVM’s Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS).

In addition to researchers from Cornell University, the multi-institutional project also includes researchers from Texas A&M’s CVM and College of Education & Human Development.

“These groups understand that it will take multidisciplinary teams to achieve the institution’s goals of transforming education within the Texas A&M University System and around the world,” Ritter said.

The team also links together other female leaders in the field of veterinary medicine education, including:

  • Dr. Virginia Fajt, clinical associate professor in the CVM’s Department of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology (VTPP) and chair of the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU) and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) Antimicrobial Resistance Core Competencies Working Group
  • Dr. Sara Lawhon, associate professor in the CVM’s Department of Veterinary Pathobiology and principal investigator of a synergistic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded research on antibiotic use, resistance, and stewardship in veterinary practice
  • Dr. Christine Budke, VIBS associate professor, veterinary epidemiologist, and instructor of public health
  • Dr. Meredyth Jones, associate professor in the CVM’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, food animal clinician, and instructor
  • Dr. Jacquline Stillisano, co-director of the Education Research Center in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture

By the end of the project, the team anticipates reaching 3,000 graduates per year from veterinary colleges across the United States and 1,000 undergraduates per year from programs related to animal science.

 

About Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences

The Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences was established nearly a century ago to serve the needs of the Texas livestock industry.  Today it serves the largest livestock industry in the U.S., in addition to protecting the health of all animals, people, and the environment in the country’s second-most populous state. It is an innovative leader in veterinary medical education recognized for housing the Center for Educational Technologies and graduating top-quality, practice-ready veterinarians from Texas A&M University, which is the seventh largest university in the nation and a top 20 Tier One research institution.

About Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine is recognized internationally as a leader in public health, biomedical research, animal medicine, and veterinary medical education. Ranked the No. 1 veterinary college in the nation by U.S. News & World Report consistently since 2000, the college’s strength is due to the strategic breadth and depth of its programs, to the expertise of its faculty, and to the achievements of its alumni. Cornell awarded the first veterinary degree in the United States to Daniel Salmon, best known for discovering Salmonella, and again made history in 1910 when it awarded the first American woman with a veterinary degree.

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

Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; mpalsa@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)

Texas A&M Study Links Breast Cancer, Body’s Internal Clock

Weston PorterFor years, doctors have associated the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations with an increased risk of breast cancer.

But researchers at Texas A&M University have now identified another gene that may have an impact on breast cancer—associated with the body’s circadian rhythm.

Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) professor Weston Porter and his team have found that Period 2 (Per2), a regulatory mechanism within each cell’s peripheral clock, plays a crucial function in mammalian mammary gland development and that when suppressed, Per2 leads to severely disrupted gland development in mice.

The findings, published in the scientific journal Development, add to a growing list that ties disruptions to our circadian rhythm—that is, the “central clock” mechanism in our brains—to a higher risk of cancer progression, obesity, some neuromuscular diseases, and other impairments, including jetlag.

Circadian rhythm is controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the brain’s anterior hypothalamus. In addition to coordinating our sleep patterns, the SCN coordinates the other peripheral clocks in our body, which run on a 24-hour cycle that corresponds with each day.

“Not only do we have a central clock, but every one of our cells has one of these peripheral clocks and they’re in coordination with the central clock,” Porter said. “When you wake up in the morning and see light, the light goes right into the brain and it triggers this molecular mechanism that regulates the (circadian rhythm) process.”

In their study, Porter’s team evaluated Per2, which provides the “negative feedback,” or counterbalance, to the circadian rhythm process.

“The negative and positive feedback mechanisms are constantly in balance, going up and down. One’s up during the day, the other one’s up at night—they oscillate right at 24 hours—but when you see light, that resets it in the morning,” Porter said. “WhenPer2 comes back, it suppresses another gene called BMAL or CLOCK.”

Their finding—that Per2 has a crucial function outside of timekeeping in mammalian mammary gland development where Per2plays a role in cell differentiation and identity—describes a potentially important role for Per2 in breast cancer. Per2 expression is lost in a large percentage of mammary tumors, which suggests it may have protective effects.

“We discovered that these glands have what we call a kind of a bipotent phenotype; they’re actually halfway to cancer,” Porter said. “They’ve already have many of the characteristics you would see in a premalignant cell.

“We started to look at the mechanism associated with that and found that the stem cell markers associated with a loss of Per2are more basal, which is characteristic of more invasive cancer,” he said. “This reinforces the idea that Per2 is functioning as a tumor suppressor gene associated with cell identity.”

In addition to disruption of the developing mammary gland, Porter also saw the same defect in transplant studies, showing that it is Per2, and not just the central clock itself, that is responsible for the lack of mammary ductal growth in the developing gland.

Their next step is to revisit studies that correlate working a night shift with an increased risk of breast cancer.

“Right now, we are investigating how our findings relate to humans,” Porter said. “There are studies out there showing a relationship between decreased levels of Per2 and certain types of breast cancer, which are more invasive. So, we believe that there is a direct relationship.”

Understanding circadian rhythm and its effects on the body have become increasingly important to the science community. The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to researchers for discoveries of the molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm, and the National Cancer Institute recently named the role of circadian rhythms in cancer as one of their 12 provocative questions for the year.

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

Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; mpalsa@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)

Texas A&M Study Offers New Virus-Host Protein Insight, New Possibilities for Antiviral Development

Viruses have a very limited set of genes and, therefore, must use the cellular machineries of their hosts for most parts of their growth.

Leif Andersson
Leif Andersson

In a new study, scientists at Texas A&M and Uppsala universities have discovered a specific host protein that many viruses use for their transport within the cell.

The human gene, ZC3H11A, is found in all vertebrates and is expressed essentially in all human cells; the gene has been known for about 20 years, but its functional importance has been unknown.

The team, led by Texas A&M professor Leif Andersson, however, has discovered that ZC3H11A is critical for the replication of multiple medically important viruses—including adenovirus, influenza virus, HIV, and herpes simplex virus—which opens up new possibilities for the development of new broad-spectrum antiviral therapies.

The discovery was published April 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA).

With modern DNA sequencing technologies, it is relatively easy to identify all genes coding for proteins in an organism, but it is often much more challenging to really understand the cellular function of proteins, according Andersson, professor of animal genomics in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS) and professor of functional genomics at Sweden’s Uppsala University.

The discovery is the result of a project by Uppsala doctoral student Shady Younis, who used the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to inactivate the ZC3H11A gene in a human cell line; initially, he found that the inactivation of ZC3H11A had little effect, showing that it is not essential for the growth of these human cells.

But while discussing his finding with fellow doctoral student Wael Kamel, Younis decided to challenge the cells lacking ZC3H11A with a virus infection.

The ZC3H11A protein (in green) surrounds the adenovirus replication centers in human in HeLa cells.
The ZC3H11A protein (in green) surrounds the adenovirus replication centers in human in HeLa cells. Photo by Shady Younis

To their surprise, there was a drastic reduction of the growth of adenovirus (a group of viruses that can infect the tissue linings of the respiratory tract, eyes, intestines, urinary tract, and nervous system) in the cells lacking ZC3H11A, compared with cells expressing the protein.

The team has now demonstrated that at least four different viruses that replicate in the host cell nucleus are dependent on the ZC3H11A protein for their efficient growth; these viruses need ZC3H11A for the transport of virus RNA from the nucleus to the cytoplasm, where the virus proteins will be produced before the viruses can exit the cell and infect other cells, Kamel said.

“This serendipitous discovery is an excellent example of how a good scientific environment can inspire scientists to collaborative efforts that may lead to important scientific discoveries,” Andersson said.

The group also has demonstrated that ZC3H11A is a stress-induced RNA binding protein and appears to be part of a previously unknown mechanism for how cells handle stress.

The observation that the amount of ZC3H11A protein increases during a virus infection was a very surprising finding since viruses typically shut down host-cell protein expression to favor virus production, Andersson said.

“Our data suggest that nuclear-replicating viruses have hijacked a cellular mechanism for RNA transport activated during stress for their own advantage,” he said.

The spread of the influenza virus that has severely impacted people around the world proves there is a strong need to develop new antiviral drugs; a major goal for the team is now to test if they can block how viruses take advantage of the function of the ZC3H11A protein and if this will impair virus growth in living animals, not only in cells as they have proven in the current study, Andersson said.

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

Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; mpalsa@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)

A&M Research Receives FDA Orphan-Drug Designation for Angelman Syndrome Treatment

College Station, Texas — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted orphan-drug designation to GTX-101 for the treatment of Angelman syndrome, a rare

Scott Dindot
Scott Dindot

neurogenetic disorder that affects approximately 1 in 15,000 people. GTX-101 is the first drug candidate for startup GeneTx Biotherapeutics, LLC (GeneTx).

“No approved treatments for Angelman syndrome exist today,” said Allyson Berent, GeneTx chief science officer. “The FDA’s orphan-drug designation for GTX-101 highlights the significant need for treatments for individuals with Angelman syndrome, and we believe that targeted delivery of GTX-101 represents a promising, novel approach to treat this devastating disorder.”

Angelman syndrome (AS) is caused by a loss of function of the maternally inherited UBE3A gene. Symptoms of AS include developmental delay, impaired motor function, loss of speech and epilepsy.

GTX-101 is an investigational antisense oligonucleotide designed to inhibit transcription of the UBE3A-AS across the paternal allele of UBE3A. In vitro studies show that as a result of this inhibition, transcription of the paternal UBE3A gene is restored in neurons of the central nervous system.

An antisense oligonucleotide is a synthetic string of nucleic acids that interferes with the normal processing of a target gene to, for example, turn on or turn off expression of a target gene or to alter the splicing pattern of the gene. Clinical trials have shown promising results using antisense oligonucleotides to treat neurogenetic disorders for spinal muscular atrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“This is a new area of medicine, known as a targeted therapy,” said Scott Dindot, Ph.D., associate professor in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). “Historically, clinicians have treated symptoms of a disease or disorder with medication but not the cause of the condition. A targeted therapy goes after the cause of the condition and attempts to fix it.”

GeneTx entered into a worldwide license agreement with The Texas A&M University System and a research collaboration agreement with Texas A&M AgriLife Research, under which GeneTx hopes to further develop and commercialize this novel antisense oligonucleotide as a targeted therapy for patients with the disorder.

“The FDA’s orphan drug designation for GTX-101 is an important next step in bringing effective treatments to individuals with Angelman syndrome,” said Paula Evans, GeneTx chief executive officer. “Activation of the normally silent paternal UBE3A gene has the potential to mitigate many of the disorder’s debilitating symptoms.”

The Orphan Drug Act became law in 1983. Fewer than 5,000 applicants have received this special designation, according to the FDA website. Rare conditions are often described as orphan diseases or disorders when there are few or no treatment options. There are about 7,000 known orphan diseases in the United States.

The FDA’s Orphan Drug Designation program provides orphan status to drugs and biologics that are defined as those intended for the safe and effective treatment, diagnosis or prevention of rare diseases, or disorders that affect fewer than 200,000 people in the United States.

The designation allows the sponsor of the drug to be eligible for various incentives, including a seven-year period of U.S. marketing exclusivity upon regulatory approval of the drug, as well as tax credits for clinical research costs, annual grant funding, clinical trial design assistance, and the waiver of Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA) filing fees.

About GeneTx Biotherapeutics

GeneTx Biotherapeutics, LLC, is a start-up company dedicated to developing and commercializing safe and effective therapeutics for the treatment of Angelman syndrome.

About Angelman Syndrome

Angelman syndrome (AS) is a rare, neurogenetic disorder caused by a loss of function of the maternally inherited UBE3A gene on the 15th chromosome. UBE3A is an imprinted gene where only the maternal copy is expressed in neurons of the central nervous system. Imprinting of UBE3A is regulated by expression of the paternally expressed UBE3A antisense transcript (UBE3A-AS). Individuals with Angelman syndrome generally have developmental delay, balance issues, motor impairment and debilitating seizures. Some people with AS never walk. Most do not speak. Anxiety and disturbed sleep can be serious challenges among those with AS. While individuals with AS have a normal lifespan, they require continuous care and are unable to live independently. Typical characteristics of AS are not usually evident at birth. Individuals with AS have feeding difficulties as infants and noticeable delayed development around 6-12 months of age. They need intensive therapies to help develop functional skills. In most cases, AS isn’t genetically inherited. Angelman syndrome affects all races and genders. It is often misdiagnosed as autism or cerebral palsy. There is an unmet clinical need for individuals with AS in the areas of motor functioning, communication, behavior and sleep. For more information about Angelman syndrome, please visit CureAngelman.org.

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

Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; mpalsa@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)

Muscular Dystrophy Research

DMD is a devastating disease that affects both children and dogs. It is a genetic disease that affects boys, all of whom die early in life, living only into their twenties, but only after much suffering. Any parent with an affected child is acutely aware of how devastating this disease is, not only to the affected children but also to their families.

The dogs with DMD at Texas A&M are treated with great care and tenderness, as they help unravel the mysteries and potential cures for this dreadful disease. Not only do our people who work with these dogs truly care about them as individuals, the work being conducted is highly regulated and there is rigorous oversight of their care by a number of organizations, including:

  • USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
  • NIH (National Institutes of Health)
  • DOD (Department of Defense)
  • AAALAC (Accrediting body that comes around every 3 years)

It saddens us that without full knowledge—of what we are doing, how the dogs are treated, and how close we are to an effective treatment—groups have taken a rigid position and are using slander that adversely affects the opinion of those who don’t know all of the facts.

Please be assured that those who work with our dogs have chosen to devote their lives and careers to the care and well-being of all animals.

Texas A&M’s Chiu Receives Grant Through Gulf Research Program

Weihsueh Chiu, a professor in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS), has received a $700,000 grant from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Gulf Research Program (GRP).

Dr. Chiu

Chiu’s project on “Prioritizing Risks from Oil Spills: Supporting Decisions with Read-Across Using 21st Century Exposure and Toxicological Sciences” was one of seven projects from researchers across the country funded through the GRP, the National Academies announced on Jan. 24.

“This project further expands Texas A&M’s commitment to using cutting-edge research and technologies to address the impacts of disasters–in this case, oil spills,” Chiu said. “We are bringing together a world-class, interdisciplinary team that reaches well beyond CVM, including researchers at the Texas A&M School of Public Health and Geochemical & Environmental Research Group, as well as Pacific Northwest National Labs, and the consulting firm Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health.”

For the project, Chiu and his collaborators will use new approaches and technologies in exposure science and toxicology to try to predict the toxicity of substances to which people can be exposed during and after an oil spill.

Because an oil spill can involve a complex mix of interacting substances and environmental factors, which then produces many unknowns that are either difficult or not currently possible to account for, the team will work to address existing limitations and improve assessment and decision-making processes relating to public health risks resulting from oil spills.

“The project will build on and leverage several other recently-initiated projects, including the Texas A&M Superfund Research program and the Institute for Sustainable Communities,” Chiu said. “A key feature of all of these projects is their engagement with local communities and decision-makers involved in disaster response and recovery throughout the research process, so as to accelerate the translation of research into actual practice.”

“This project also will demonstrate the importance of engaging partners like local public health departments in Harris and Galveston Counties to ensure that research is effectively translated into policy and practice to reduce the health impacts of oil spills,” said project collaborator Jennifer Horney, department head and associate professor in the Texas A&M School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics.

The project is one of two funded under the “Improving Risk-Based Evaluations to Support a Public Health Response to the Next Oil Spill” category, for projects focused on improving the information available to decision-makers for evaluating public health risks resulting from oil spills.

“Many decisions relating to public health risks are made following a disaster such as an oil spill,” said Chris Rea, associate program officer for the GRP’s Thriving Communities Initiative. “Risk assessment science inherently involves numerous uncertainties, though, and decisions are limited by what we actually know about potential hazards. The Academies’ report highlighted recent advances that could be used to improve the science behind hazard identification, exposure assessment, and risk characterization, and these two projects are working to apply some of those advances for use in assessing oil spill public health risks.”

The GRP funding competition was specifically geared toward projects that would bring researchers and practitioners together to transfer knowledge and work jointly on efforts that advance both science and its application. All awarded projects were selected after an external peer-review process.

“This funding opportunity is an example of how the Gulf Research Program takes advantage of a core strength of the National Academies – to supply expert consensus on using science to address real-world problems,” said Evonne Tang, the GRP’s director of external funding opportunities. “Two recent reports on topics central to the GRP’s mission were the basis of this grant competition, and the awards direct funding toward efforts that will quickly begin to address the recommendations in those reports.”

The GRP is an independent, science-based program founded in 2013 as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. It seeks to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment by catalyzing advances in science, practice, and capacity to generate long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit national-academies.org.

Dr. Sarah Hamer Protects Human, Animal Lives Through Kissing Bugs Project

Stumbling across an unidentified large black bug in your house may make you feel panicked or even curious. Should you smash it with a nearby shoe? Or scoop it up in a cup and release it outside?

If that insect happens to be a kissing bug, you have another option-send it to Dr. Sarah Hamer and her research team at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).

Kissing bugs-also known as cone-nose bugs, or triatomine insects-feed on human and animal blood. The insects are of particular interest to Hamer because of their potential to transmit the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease, a malady that can lead to acute or chronic heart disease or death in humans, pets, and wildlife. Acute heart disease is severe and has a sudden onset, while chronic heart disease develops over a long period of time.

There is a significant human health burden of Chagas disease in Central and South America and Mexico, where medical doctors are generally aware of the risk of disease. There is far less awareness for the disease in the U.S., despite estimates of over 300,000 infected people in the country.

HamerLab

While many of these individuals are likely to have contracted the disease in Latin America before moving to the U.S., there is increasing recognition for locally acquired human infections in the southern states, where infected kissing bugs are widespread. A growing number of dogs across the South are recognized to be infected, possibly from consuming infected bugs in the environment. While some infected dogs may live happy, health lives, others may die acutely or suffer chronic cardiac disease. Because there is no vaccine and treatment options are limited, efforts to control the vectors and parasite in nature may hold the key for disease prevention.

To better understand the risk of Chagas disease in the southern United States, Hamer and her team are taking an ecological approach to characterize the transmission cycles so that the parasite can be managed in nature before it spills over to humans and dogs. They are gauging infection and cardiac health status in pet dogs, working dogs, and shelter dogs across the state. And they are trapping kissing bugs to learn about their infection and feeding patterns across different regions.

When Hamer and her team started researching Chagas disease, they decided it was best to collect bugs from across Texas to address different research questions about the bug’s ecology. However, setting traps for the bugs was inefficient and did not provide enough for research; Hamer said her team often came up empty handed or had few bugs to work with from the field.

After talking to land owners, Hamer realized that many people are familiar with the kissing bug and have seen them on their property.

“People started hanging on to some of these bugs that they would see in their houses or in their dog kennels,” Hamer said. “They would put them in an old pill container or plastic bag and save them for us, and the next time we were out doing field work, we’d look at them.”

As the project grew to emphasize citizen science, the team’s research power expanded; citizen involvement granted the team access to more samples than they could ever dream of collecting themselves.

“We now have well over 3,000 bugs in our collection, which is bigger than any other collection of kissing bugs in the United States,” Hamer said. “Our students still are out actively trapping bugs, but we can’t match the effort of the citizen scientists. It’s huge, and it’s awesome.”

With so much citizen involvement, the program evolved to include outreach materials, such as a website with an interactive map to show where kissing bugs have been collected, informational pamphlets, and an established email account to answer questions and further include the public on the project. Hamer sees the outreach component as a way to educate the public about kissing bugs and protect the public’s health, as well as the health of pets and surrounding wildlife.

 

HamerKissingBug
Dr. Sarah Hamer and Valery Roman-Cruz, MPh, examine kissing bugs.

While citizen scientists are often interested in knowing whether the bug they submitted is infected, Hamer says the result of any single bug is less informative than the overall epidemiology of the vectors. Finding an infected bug in the yard does not mean the family members or the family dog are at immediate risk for the disease but broadly suggests the region around the home is suitable for kissing bugs and Chagas disease, Hamer said. The team often educates the public specifically about how the disease is transmitted to help the public make decisions about their health.

In fact, Hamer said the route of transmission for Chagas disease can be rather inefficient-the cycle of the disease begins when a kissing bug feeds on the blood of an infected host. But unlike mosquitoes or ticks, kissing bugs cannot spread the parasite by simply biting another animal or person. Instead, the parasite occurs in the bug’s feces, and, therefore, the bug must defecate on a person or animal and the infected fecal material must be absorbed into the skin through the eyes, mouth, or a wound created by the kissing bug biting the victim. That series of events can be a rare occurrence, especially given a good standard of housing where bugs are unlikely to colonize inside the homes to reach people. However, oral transmission can also occur, and Hamer said dogs can contract the disease by consuming an infected kissing bug.

Once inside the new host, the parasite circulates in the blood for some time and then can infect different organs, including the heart, where it replicates, causing damage to the heart tissue cells. Over time, more and more heart tissue cells are destroyed, which can lead to heart disease.

While the effects of Chagas can be fatal, many infected individuals may never know they have been infected. It’s not possible to predict which infected individuals will suffer disease, and so physicians and veterinarians have a difficult time discussing the prognosis. Hamer said some people infected with Chagas may find out after donating blood, since blood banks now routinely screen for Chagas antibodies.

Because there is no cure for Chagas disease, only treatments to manage the symptoms, Hamer emphasizes that studying the parasite in bugs and wildlife can provide key data to protect the health of humans and dogs, and public outreach is a key component.

“We are working on a cell phone app as a future direction to enhance our outreach and research,” Hamer said. “People can upload pictures of their bugs and the app will time stamp it and mark it with location data. In addition, the app will also be a simple interface to get good information about kissing bugs and Chagas disease.”

The team is collaborating with other veterinarians, parasitologists, entomologists, geographers, diagnosticians, and public health officials at Texas A&M, the state health department, other universities-including in Mexico and Brazil-and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Without collaboration and teamwork, Hamer’s research interests and efforts to educate the public about Chagas would not be possible.

To learn more and submitting a kissing bug to the TAMU Citizen Science Kissing Bug program visit kissingbug.tamu.edu.

Texas A&M’s Andersson, Research Team Observe New Species Among Darwin’s Finches

A team of scientists including Texas A&M University and Uppsala University professor Leif Andersson has discovered the origin of a new species of finch living among Darwin’s finches in the Galápagos archipelago.

Published on Thursday, Nov. 23, in the journal Science, their study reports that the new lineage was formed by the hybridization of two different species of Darwin’s finches.

Darwin’s finches provide an iconic model for the evolution of biodiversity on earth due to natural selection.

 

 

Big Bird lineage
A schematic illustration of the evolution of the Big Bird lineage on the Daphne Major island in the Galápagos archipelago. Initially an immigrant large cactus finch male (Geospiza conirostris) bred with a medium ground finch female (Geospiza fortis). Their offspring bred with each other and established the Big Bird lineage. —Photos © K. Thalia Grant for G. conirostris and Peter R. Grant for the remainder. Reproduced with permission from K. Thalia Grant and Princeton University Press, which first published the remaining images in “40 Years of Evolution” (P. R. Grant & B. R. Grant, 2014).

While conducting their field work on the small island of Daphne Major in 1981, Princeton University researchers Rosemary and Peter Grant observed an immigrant male that sang an unusual song and differed in size from all resident species on the island. Throughout their 40 consecutive years of direct observation, the Grants found that a new lineage, which they named the Big Bird lineage, was initiated when that male bred with a resident medium ground finch female.

The couple followed the new putative lineage for six generations, over 30 years. DNA sequence data now have revealed that the immigrant male was a large cactus finch, which, remarkably, must have flown to Daphne from Española island, more than 60 miles to the southeast.

The identification of the Big Bird lineage is significant because while a critical step in speciation is the establishment of reproductive isolation and the process of speciation is usually assumed to take a very long time, in the Big Bird lineage, it happened in just two generations, according to the Grants.

“The interesting aspect of this study is that a hybridization between two distinct species led to the development of a new lineage that after only two generations behaved as any other species of Darwin’s finches,” said Andersson, a visiting professor in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS) and an author on the study. “If a naturalist had come to Daphne Major island without knowing that this lineage arose very recently it would have been recognized as one of the four species on the island. This clearly demonstrates the value of long-running field studies.”

Traditionally, good species respect species boundaries and cannot produce fully fertile progeny if hybridization happens, as is the case for the horse and the donkey, for example; however, in recent years, it has become clear that some closely related species that normally avoid breeding with each other exchange genes by hybridization surprisingly often.

The study’s authors have previously reported that there has been a considerable amount of gene flow going on among the 18 species of Darwin’s finches for thousands of years. All 18 species have been derived from a single ancestral species that colonized the Galápagos 1-2 million years ago.

“It is very likely that new lineages, like the Big Birds, have originated many times during the evolution of Darwin’s finches,” Andersson said. “The majority of these have gone extinct, but some may have led to the evolution of contemporary species. We have no idea about the long-term survival of the Big Bird lineage, but it has the potential to become a success and it provides a beautiful example of one way in which speciation occurs. Charles Darwin would have been excited to read this paper.”

The Big Bird lineage was identified because of the unique song of the original immigrant male, since sons learn the song of their father and females mate with males that sing like their fathers, according to the Grants, who are also listed as co-authors of the study.

The new lineage also differed from the resident species in beak morphology—often occurring in order for a lineage to be ecologically competitive—which is also a major cue for mate choice. In the case of the Big Bird lineage, its beak morphology evolved from that of the immigrant finch to allow the species to utilize different food sources on the Galápagos.

“It is very striking that when we compare the size and shape of the Big Bird beaks with the beak morphologies of the other three species inhabiting Daphne Major island, the Big Birds occupy their own niche in the beak morphology space,” said Sangeet Lamichhaney, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University and co-author on the study. “Thus, the combination of gene variants contributed from the two interbreeding species in combination with natural selection led to the evolution of a beak morphology that was competitive and unique.”

The study was supported by the Galápagos National Parks Service, The Charles Darwin Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, and The Swedish Research Council.

Dr. Kate Creevy: Research, In Dog Years

Aging is a universal experience, shared by both humans and animals. But many mysteries still surround the aging process. Now, a collaborative project between the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), the University of Washington, and other colleges and organizations is set to chip away at these mysteries to better understand how our canine companions age both physically and mentally.

Dr. Kate Creevy and Poet
Dr. Kate Creevy and Poet

The Dog Aging Project is an innovative proposal to study aging in pets, to benefit their health and longevity, according to Dr. Kate Creevy, chief veterinary officer on the Dog Aging Project and associate professor at the CVM.

“The things that we can learn about dogs to benefit them also can benefit people,” she said. “We hope that our interest in studying the dog for its own sake provides terrific benefit to people, as well.”

Starting with understanding and characterizing how dogs age, the project seeks to build upon what little information currently exists to describe normal aging in various sizes and breeds, Creevy said. This not only will help veterinarians better treat aging canines, but it will help researchers understand conditions such as diabetes and arthritis that affect both dogs and humans as they age.

Dogs of All Shapes and Sizes

Approximately 10,000 dogs of varying ages and breeds living throughout the United States will be enrolled in the project, accounting for a sample size that is representative enough to describe aging in a typical dog. The study will take a long-term look at the health of dogs in their natural environment over five to 10 years, making middle-aged dogs particularly valuable candidates for the study.

Enrolled dogs will live out their days as they normally would, seeing their regular veterinarians, which will allow dogs across the country to conveniently participate.

They will be divided into two subsets, a more closely monitored group and a less closely monitored group. Each group will contribute unique data to the project.

For the closely monitored group, local veterinarians will collect regular blood and urine samples that will be sent to Creevy and her team, who will also assess the dogs’ medical records and remain in close contact with the veterinarians. Researchers also will regularly communicate with owners about their dogs’ routines.

The less-closely monitored subset comprises dogs that will provide genetic samples, which will help the research team understand the genetic origins of age-related diseases. Researchers also will monitor the dogs’ medical records.

“It is our goal to make the portion of the dogs who are closely monitored a larger and larger group by continuing to obtain additional funding,” Creevy said.

Exercising Body and Mind

Because activity levels are known to influence health, the Dog Aging Project also will use monitors to measure levels of activity, heart rate, and other vital parameters in some dogs. Using accelerometers will provide the researchers with important health information about the dogs’ activity levels, which likely also will be of interest to owners, Creevy said.

“We will be interested in that data for research, but the owners also will have access to that data,” she said. “For example, if an owner wants to know how much her dog runs around the house when she’s not home, she can.”

Physical health is not the only thing that the researchers are investigating; the Dog Aging Project also aims to understand and characterize how dogs’ brains age. Through the project, owners will have access to a website that allows dogs and owners to play various games to assess different aspects of cognition.

“It’s not about whether your dog is smarter or dumber; it’s about how your dog thinks and if certain breeds and ages of dogs tend to think the same way,” said Creevy, adding that the tests will allow owners to bond with and understand their dogs.

The Big Picture

Creevy’s research is a first step in providing a foundation for future canine aging research. The field is so cutting-edge, many of its questions have yet to be discovered.

“We won’t really know what some of the data means at the time that we collect it,” she said. “We won’t know what it means until we’ve captured the information from a lot of dogs and have had time to see how their lives unfolded.

“(Likewise) Some of the information we’ll be giving back to owners won’t be of immediate use to them, but as the research progresses and some of that information develops new meanings, they’ll be able to use the information to better understand their dogs,” Creevy said.

By providing this fundamental knowledge, the Dog Aging Project has the potential to help support a new field in veterinary medicine-geriatrics.

“One of the things that’s true about veterinary medicine is we do not currently have a specialty in geriatrics the way they do in human health,” Creevy said. “Certainly as people age, you see a gerontologist. We do not currently have a specialty of veterinary gerontology. Defining what the typical or normal old dog looks like is our first challenge.”

Creevy also anticipates people becoming more aware of the Dog Aging Project and to have future collaborations with groups that want to further examine certain variables, such as diet, exercise, and even certain medications. These variables could impact canine aging and, in turn, affect human aging.

New Tricks

In many ways, dogs mirror their owners. By sharing the same habits, dogs can serve as a model for human conditions, such as obesity, cancer, and arthritis. But dogs are not only helping people; people are helping dogs, as well.

“We have chosen to use models from human medicine to identify some of the diseases we think are going to be the most important to healthful aging, because the diseases that dogs experience in aging are, in many ways, very similar to people,” Creevy said. “Obesity is a big problem for dogs, just as it is for people in this country. Cancer is a big problem for dogs, just as it is for people in this country. They get low thyroid function or hypothyroidism. We consider all of those to be very, very important diseases of dogs.”

Creevy said aging sometimes can be associated with dogs losing interest in daily life, becoming difficult to interact with, and losing normal control of food and bathroom times. These things can be a challenge for aging people, as well.

“Trying to understand dogs who end up experiencing those conditions, versus the dogs who don’t, may lead to some way we could interact with dogs younger in life to decrease the likelihood of these outcomes,” Creevy said.

Ultimately, it’s the love humans have for their dogs that helps push the research forward, Creevy said.

“We’re trying to be on the cutting edge, and I think we are inspired by the fact that dogs are so important to people,” she said. “There is no limit to the things owners would do to try to promote healthy, enjoyable lives for their dogs. Because that’s true, we’re capable of pushing the research envelope and asking questions that haven’t previously been asked because dog owners are willing and able to help us.”

Texas A&M Receives NIEHS Superfund Grant to Conduct Environmental Research

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Texas A&M Superfund Research Center scientists from across campus will conduct four environmental research projects funded by a five-year, $10 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

 

 

One of the Superfund Site signs in the Houston Ship Channel
One of the Superfund Site signs in the Houston Ship Channel

Established in 1987, the NEIHS Superfund Research Program is a highly competitive grant-based program that funds a network of 16 university-based multidisciplinary research teams that study human health and environmental issues related to hazardous chemicals, with a goal of understanding the link between exposure and disease.

Texas A&M Superfund Center researchers, led by Dr. Ivan Rusyn, professor in Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), and Dr. Anthony Knap, professor of oceanography and director of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group in the College of Geosciences, will work to translate science into the practice of mitigating the health and environmental consequences of exposure to hazardous chemical mixtures.

“We’re a new center, so it’s a major accomplishment to join NIEHS grantees who work on Superfund, and we should be proud of that,” Rusyn said. “The reviewers said that our program was clearly one of those examples of when the entire program is even greater than the sum of its parts.”

Four projects, all part of the grant, will stem from a case study of a major storm coming through Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel, examining the chemicals found within the sediment to understand the complexities of hazardous chemical exposures and potential adverse health impacts.

“There are a hundred years of chemicals in the sediment in the Galveston Bay due to the shallow depth, the proximity to a densely populated area, and concentration of many industries. A hurricane or major storm will dislodge and mobilize many of the legacy chemicals in that sediment and eventually deposit it on land. That creates a completely new contamination and human exposure scenario,” Knap said. “When that happened with Hurricane Ike almost 10 years ago, the local and state authorities had to act on general, standard procedures, not the most relevant scientific evidence about this particular event.”

“Environmental emergencies create issues that need to be solved right now, we cannot afford to just tell people to wait 50 years. It can’t be ‘we’ll figure it out,’” Rusyn said. “Decisions need to be made quickly and based on sound science, a challenge that our center will address.”

The ultimate goal of the program is to create packages that will serve as “how-tos” for affected areas during any form of environmental emergency situation, from weather-related disasters, to chemical spills, to industrial accidents.

 

 

Mya Morales
Mya Morales, Texas A&M student, testing water in the bay.

“We’re developing tools that can quickly determine the type of hazard and which concentrations could cause a problem,” Knap said. “This is where a ‘whole mixtures’ theme is important, because traditional decision-making is done one chemical at a time, but humans are exposed to mixtures of chemicals and, especially in these emergency situations, we don’t know the identities of the individual chemicals or their potential toxicities.”

Texas A&M Superfund researchers represent the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Medicine, Geoscience, Engineering, and Science; the School of Public Health; and the Texas A&M Health Science Center. Partners also include North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, Baylor College of Medicine, and the federal Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“Texas A&M has a tradition of high-impact research,” said Dr. Eleanor Green, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M. “This NIEHS grant is a product of Dr. Rusyn, scientists from across Texas A&M’s campus, and partners from across the country coming together to collaborate with excellence. Dr. Rusyn is one of our President’s Senior Hires supported by the Chancellor’s Research Initiative, an initiative that successfully attracts world-renowned scholars and researchers. This grant not only demonstrates a commitment to one health, but also takes an innovative and timely approach to offer solutions to potential environmental disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, to mitigate the health and environmental consequences of exposure to people and to animals. The CVM is proud of this incredible team of researchers, led by our own Dr. Rusyn.”

Rusyn said the program wouldn’t be possible without the support of Texas A&M and the Texas A&M Office of the Vice President for Research, which provided additional resources that enabled the center to fund pilot projects, facilitate interactions within the center, support diversity in training, and offer “boot camp” exercises to demonstrate the use of new tools and approaches.

“The institutional support we have received from Texas A&M is something that is just unparalleled in this current environment,” he said. “This university’s support has been spectacular in that regard, and I am delighted to be part of the institution that encourages team science at the national level.

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More about this project will be available in the next edition of CVM Today magazine, which will be published later this month.

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

Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; mpalsa@cvm.tamu.edu ; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)