Jessica Israel, a graduate student pursuing a non-thesis master’s in biomedical sciences at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), is trekking her own path to a veterinary medicine degree by first immersing herself in research, an unconventional path for most non-thesis graduate students. Through her research experience, she hopes to contribute a different perspective to veterinary medicine. As a member of the deaf community, she will add to the diversity of the veterinary community.
Although some may consider her deafness a challenge, Israel has not let it get in the way of her research. In April 2016, Israel was selected to present her research at the Experimental Biology Conference in San Diego—a conference that presents novel research discoveries in the fields of anatomy, biochemistry and molecular biology, investigative pathology, nutrition, pharmacology, and physiology. Israel’s selection to present at the conference was in recognition for her research and her position as a non-thesis major involved in research.
At the conference, Israel worked alongside interpreters to present her work to fellow scientists. “I had the chance to present my poster to scientists, who listened with interest and wanted to compare and discuss data from their research,” she said. “Scientists with years of experience in their field gave me feedback on how I could improve my experiments. I found this experience stimulating, and it boosted my confidence. The chance to interact with others, network, and listen to what others had to say was an amazing experience.”
There was much preparation for the poster presentation, Israel explained, “the conference provided me with two interpreters who would act as my voice during the duration of the presentation, and I was hesitant to put my trust in those interpreters because I didn’t know if they had a scientific background until I met them. So, I prepared a script with exact wording I would say during the presentation and tried to help them understand what the research project was about prior to giving the presentation. In the morning, I spent four hours practicing my presentation with them, and it took a while for them to learn. In the end, the presentation turned out great.”
The conference also introduced Israel to several scientists who were interested in collaborating with her. This was an opportunity Israel was grateful for. “I would encourage everyone to have a similar experience because it helps develop better interpersonal skills and increase networking,” she said. “I met several people who I would like to stay in touch with and could help me grow professionally.”
Israel’s interests in biomedical sciences and veterinary medicine include small animal surgery and research that could help build an even stronger bridge between human and animal health. Under the direction of Dr. Cristine L. Heaps, an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology at the CVM, Israel conducts research on the circulatory system, something she may continue to focus on after acquiring her master’s degree.
“I haven’t decided specifically which area of focus I want to study in veterinary school, but knowledge of the circulatory system would be beneficial,” Israel said. “I do know I want to focus on the surgical aspect of veterinary medicine and do more extensive surgery.”
Using pigs as models, Israel’s research focuses on endothelial nitric oxide synthase—or eNOS—distribution along the blood vessels that supply the heart and how this can affect blood pressure regulation. These eNOS receptors—which are released by the heart in reaction to stress—aid in the dilation of blood vessels and help regulate blood pressure. The potential to help better understand the role of blood pressure regulation in heart disease attracted Israel to study the cardiovascular system.
“I used to work in a different lab last year under Dr. Thomas Ficht, whose research focus is on brucellosis—an infection spread from animals to people through unpasteurized dairy products,” Israel said. “After working for him for a year, my interest of working in a different lab was piqued by my advisor, Dr. Heaps, who enthusiastically discussed her lab with me. I became curious and thought working in her lab would be fun, especially after being asked the question, ‘Have you ever seen a pig run on a treadmill?’ It was something I have never envisioned, and I was hooked. I asked her if I could work in her lab this year, and she agreed. I managed to see several pigs running on a treadmill; it was a funny and awesome sight.”
Before Israel was inspired to pursue her education at the CVM, she earned her undergraduate degree in biology and a minor in chemistry at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., a university for the deaf. Growing up in a deaf community, she attended a deaf school from elementary through high school. The shift to a university full of hearing people for her master’s degree was a challenge. However, Israel quickly adapted to the change.
“It was a huge change for me, using interpreters and other modes of communication besides sign language,” Israel said. “In itself, it was and still is a challenge and great experience.”
Her transition from being immersed within a deaf community to attending Texas A&M University helped prepare Israel for the beginning of her journey toward applying for veterinary school at Texas A&M. Since then, Israel has made Texas A&M her home and is not afraid to push past her obstacles. Her mentors have helped Israel explore her interests and fulfill her goals as a future veterinary student. Israel said she feels the opportunities at Texas A&M are limitless.
“Texas A&M has accommodated my needs and the professors here do a lot to give me the best access to information,” she said. “Several professors were willing to learn sign language in order to communicate with me better. They went beyond my expectations and I am grateful for this.”
Israel’s independent and confident attitude has helped her succeed at the CVM. Her devotion to her research has opened many doors to future collaborations with other scientists, as well as future opportunities to strengthen the connection between human and animal health. Israel is admired by other students and CVM staff and faculty alike.
“I am thoroughly impressed with Jessica’s tenacity as she navigates her way through the curriculum for the non-thesis master’s degree,” Heaps said. “She has performed superbly despite the obstacles to learning that she has had to overcome. In addition to her persistence in the classroom, Jessica has gone beyond that required in the non-thesis master’s program and has spent considerable time in the laboratory and preparing her scientific poster for presentation in San Diego. Jess maintains an incredibly positive attitude while negotiating every hurdle. She is a role model for all students, regardless of whether they are members of the deaf or hearing communities.”
“I am here to educate about deaf culture and show that anyone can do anything,” Israel said. “Members of the deaf community can do as much as anyone else, and I am an example of that.”
Deep in the Peruvian rainforest, 20 kilometers from the nearest road, stands the headquarters of the Tambopata Macaw Project, a combination ecotourism lodge and scientific research station. Waking up well before sunrise, teams of dedicated parrot researchers make daily trips into the jungle, braving intense humidity, thick forests, and unpredictable rivers to observe macaws in their native habitat. They climb up 150-foot trees; spend hours counting birds at clay licks; and carefully gather, measure, and return chicks to nests—while keeping a close eye on the birds’ movements through the rainforest canopy.
These adventures are all in a day’s work at the Tambopata Macaw Project, where an ever-changing crew of scientists, graduate students, foreign volunteers, and Peruvian employees work under the leadership of Dr. Donald Brightsmith, assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).
Since Brightsmith took over as director in 1999, the group has collected years of data on macaws. “I’ve had researchers recording data every single day since November 2000,” he said. It’s a treasure trove of research that Brightsmith hopes will fill in the knowledge gaps about macaw conservation and ecology.
From Long Island to the Amazon
Brightsmith grew up on Long Island, New York, just outside New York City. Despite his urban roots, he has been a lifelong naturalist and bird watcher, “much to the joy of my classmates, who would pick on me for it all the way through graduate school,” he observed humorously. That early love of birds propelled him through academia, from his bachelor’s degree in natural resources at Cornell University, to his master’s degree in wildlife ecology at the University of Arizona, to his doctorate in zoology at Duke University.
During these years, Brightsmith’s passion for birds focused on a growing interest in parrots. A trip to Costa Rica in graduate school sparked his fascination with tropical birds, and his first wife introduced him “to the world of crazy parrot owners,” he said. But Brightsmith credits a single book—Beissinger and Snyder’s New World Parrots in Crisis (1992)—for opening his eyes to the plight of tropical parrots. “It pointed out that we don’t know much about parrots in the wild,” he said. “They’re having serious problems. They’re highly valuable both as a tourism resource and a captive resource. Yet, especially in the early ’90s, we knew almost nothing about where parrots breed, what they eat, or what habitats they use in the wild. It was an incredible disconnect.”
Around the time he was finishing up his doctoral research in zoology at Duke, Brightsmith was introduced to the Tambopata Macaw Project. Established in 1989, the project had briefly earned international recognition for its work on parrot clay licks and macaw nesting, but since the early 1990s had been languishing. Brightsmith said he saw a golden opportunity to revitalize the project and “make a difference by looking at this group of birds that are hard to work with.” In 1998, he flew to Peru and met with the project leaders. “I convinced them that if they gave me a small amount of money, I wouldn’t be a full-time employee, but I would start to run this research as a scientific endeavor again,” Brightsmith said. His pitch was successful, and the Tambopata Macaw Project was reborn under his enthusiastic leadership.
A marriage of ecotourism and research
The project began in 1989 when Peruvian researchers and entrepreneurs, Eduardo Nycander and Kurt Holle, founded both Rainforest Expeditions, a for-profit ecotourism company, and the Tambopata Macaw Project. From the beginning, Rainforest Expeditions owned and operated the remote lodge that served as both a research base and a tourist destination. “From the beginning, it was always a mixture of tourism and research,” Brightsmith explained. “They wanted the two to feed off of each other.”
So far, the venture has been uniquely successful and financially sustainable. Rainforest Expeditions provides lodging, food, and utilities, charging the macaw researchers a reduced fee. Foreign volunteers pay higher daily fees, and the difference goes toward paying wages and lodging for Peruvian workers. In exchange, every group of tourists at the ecolodge receives a scientific presentation from the researchers about current research and threats to macaws.
The marriage of ecotourism and conservation research is not only a boost to the Peruvian economy, but also one of the main reasons the Tambopata Macaw Project has been able to carry on so successfully for decades. Brightsmith estimated that Rainforest Expeditions provides over $30,000 in project funding every year. “It’s not a completely sustainable system right now, but all it requires is a few thousand dollars of extra financing, which is much cheaper than a full research lab,” Brightsmith said. “This is one of the reasons why the project is still going after 20 years.”
The Schubot connection
Of course, the data they collect still requires a laboratory and experts to analyze it. That’s where Texas A&M’s Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center comes into play. Brightsmith was recruited to Texas A&M by Schubot Center Director and Distinguished Professor Dr. Ian Tizard in 2005. After some initial research collaborations with Brightsmith, Tizard visited the Tambopata Center and offered Brightsmith a job as a lecturer at the CVM.
For Brightsmith, the Schubot Center was an irresistible draw, and the relationship has paid off. “The Schubot Center provides the platform for my work,” he said. “Over the years, they have provided financial assistance and a community of scholars. Because the center exists and it’s endowed, it will always attract a group of people interested in bird research, even those who don’t know that they’re interested in bird research.”
Brightsmith credits Tizard with making the Schubot Center a vibrant hub for avian research, always bringing new scientists from different disciplines into the fold. “If he needs a microbiologist, he finds a microbiologist who knows what a bird is,” Brightsmith said. “Right now we’re working with a geneticist who works on conifer trees, but all of these people are now working on bird-related issues because the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center exists. I am within that milieu, and it provides a community of people interested in exotic bird issues.”
Groundbreaking studies about macaws using clay licks to gather essential minerals put Tambopata on the map in the 1990s, and that research continues today. Brightsmith’s team has also published papers explaining their success using artificial nest boxes to increase breeding success. However, over time, the Tambopata project’s main focuses have shifted to new questions.
Right now, Brightsmith’s main interest is the macaws’ movements and how they change in relation to seasonal events. Researchers use lightweight collars to track the movements of individual birds. Brightsmith said he is concerned about the macaws’ most recent breeding season, which was off to a late and slow start. He speculates that the El Niño weather patterns and the resulting low food supply might have something to do with it. To sort out the irregularities and what they might mean for the future of the species, he hopes to compare data from the past several years.
“At this point, we’ll be able to reflect back and see what happens when you have this odd change in plant resources and how that impacts [macaw movements and breeding],” explained Brightsmith. “Understanding what happens in an El Niño year may give us a better view into the future of what happens as larger-scale climate change alters the plants and their fruiting and flowering.”
Similarly, a shift in movement from one clay lick to another has piqued Brightsmith’s curiosity about the future. “We don’t understand how climate change and clay lick use are rippling through the environment and changing things. We need to look more carefully at these climate-related issues—the annual variations and how they correlate with the environment—which will give us a better ability to predict global change ideas.”
Brightsmith’s wife, Gabriela Vigo Trauco, Peruvian ecologist, Tambopata project coordinator, and current Ph.D. student in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A&M, is “studying scarlet macaw breeding systems using a combination of ecology, animal behavior, and genetic analysis.” The Tambopata location is perfect for her research because that species is not yet endangered in the Peruvian Amazon. “There we can study things that you cannot study in areas in which the species is endangered,” Vigo Trauco explained. “So, that’s the way I want to lead my research.”
CVM students are also using Tambopata as a site for fieldwork and graduate research. Every year, Brightsmith and Dr. Sharman Hoppes, clinical associate professor at the CVM, take two to four veterinary students on a study abroad experience at the station. Students from around Texas A&M’s campus spend time in Tambopata as both volunteers and doctoral researchers.
Hope for the future
These days, Brightsmith and Vigo Trauco make it to Tambopata only twice a year. It’s not as much as they’d like, but their life in College Station keeps them busy. Brightsmith is a full-time assistant professor and admits that he spends most of his time behind a computer, analyzing and writing up data collected from years of research. “Right now, if you told me I could never take another data point on a macaw, I probably could finish out my career publishing on the amount of information we have,” he joked. “We’re currently publishing some of the important relationships between breeding and clay lick use and food and movement. It’s building a jigsaw puzzle where the first thing you have to do is build each piece. We’re building the pieces and fitting them together as we go.”
Vigo Trauco is immersed in reviewing video data from macaw nests. “We have collected over 30,000 hours of video in the past six years,” she said. Additionally, she is restarting her genetic research; a 10-year ban on exporting genetic materials out of Peru was lifted this year, allowing her to move forward with her projects.
Most of all, the couple is devoted to raising their daughter, four-year-old Amanda Lucille, or “Mandy Lu.” For the Brightsmith family, the Tambopata Macaw Project is now a family affair. Brightsmith and Vigo Trauco met on the project, and now they bring their daughter to share in their love of the rainforest and its vibrant inhabitants. Mandy Lu—”our little rainforest monster,” as Brightsmith affectionately calls her—seems to share her parents’ enthusiasm for the Amazon. “Maybe it’s because we like it, and she sees that we’re super happy in the rainforest,” Vigo Trauco speculated. “Maybe she is connecting happiness with being in the jungle.”
Either way, sharing her beloved rainforest with Mandy Lu has shifted Vigo Trauco’s long-term goals for the Tambopata Macaw Project. She envisions the Tambopata project as an opportunity to get Peruvian students interested and involved in conserving their country’s unique natural resources. “I think it would be nice to involve young people—young adults, in high school or their first years of college—and try to put that seed in their brains that conservation can actually help and actually can happen and be fun,” she said.
Brightsmith is also enthusiastic about the opportunities to teach conservation values to people in Peru and around the world. “We’ve had thousands of tourists who have gone through our talks and seen the site and the birds and really gotten a feel for what the real rainforest is like,” he said. He’s also seen changes in local attitudes. “The project has played into this shift in mindset,” he explained. “While some locals use the money they make from ecotourism to buy bigger chainsaws, there is the development of a mindset that has led this community to be much more deliberate in their planning as to how they’re going to use their natural resources.” Both Brightsmith and Vigo Trauco look to the younger generation of Peruvians and conservationists—hopefully some from the CVM—to build a brighter future for macaws and the rainforest.
If you want to visit the site as a tourist or guest, check out
Rainforest Expeditions at www.perunature.com.
Dr. Sharman Hoppes: Avian Veterinarian in the Jungle
Since teaming up with Brightsmith in 2008, Sharman Hoppes, DVM, ABVP, and clinical associate professor at the CVM, has been flying south for the winter, straight to the Tambopata Macaw Project.
For two to three weeks, Hoppes trades in her exotic animal clinical duties at the Small Animal Hospital for a small, rustic Amazonian research facility with minimal electricity and no air conditioning. There, she runs the veterinary side of the operation, training students and making sure everybody’s projects stay on track.
Hoppes’ main concern is animal welfare. Working with wild birds unused to human handling adds a layer of complexity to her research. “I’m always very aware that we don’t want to over-stress a bird that we are handling, making it weak or tired and making it a greater risk from predators,” she explained.
Most of the work they do is with the chicks, taking them out of the nest for measurements and sampling. Hoppes states that “they become more used to the handling over time, but even with the chicks, you have to be prepared and monitor how long you have them out.”
When they are trapping adult birds, Hoppes trains her team to work with assembly-line efficiency. Her goal is to minimize contact with the birds, aiming for 10–11 minutes from capture to release. Her team practices their roles in advance using bundled-up towels. “The most important thing is that we’re really prepared and make sure that we have everything within hand’s reach, everything ready to go,” Hoppes said. “Everybody knows their part, and we all know that when we get to this time period, even if we’re not done, we let the bird go.”
Veterinary work in a hot, humid jungle can be challenging, but this self-professed “city girl” revels in it. “This project changed my life,” she said. “I love it there!”
COLLEGE STATION, TX- A study published in PNAS, led by Leif Andersson, professor at Uppsala University, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Texas A&M; University, has significant implications for how climate change may affect the reproduction of herring and other marine fishes.
Scientists in Sweden and Canada have studied the genetic basis of reproduction in 25 populations of herring from both sides of the North Atlantic. They revealed that a number of genes associated with the timing of reproduction, and the genetic variants associated with spring or autumn spawning, were found to be largely shared between geographically distant populations.
“We now have a long list of genes associated with timing of reproduction in the herring, and there are some that appear particularly important,” said Andersson. “Animals need to breed at the time of year when their progeny have the best chance of survival.”
The Atlantic herring is one of the most abundant fish in the world and has been a crucial food resource in Northern Europe. The fish spawn in the spring, summer, or autumn; which strategy is the most successful varies from year to year and over time periods due to climate conditions that affect plankton production. It has already been observed in some birds that there is a mismatch between their reproduction and the peak of insect abundance due to a warmer climate (earlier spring).
“This new study has given several interesting results. Firstly, we have revealed that herring populations across the entire Atlantic Ocean are remarkably similar genetically, suggesting that there is gene flow between herring populations. Despite this, we identified clear genetic differences between spring and autumn spawning populations. Furthermore, the genetic factors associated with spawning time were to a large extent shared between geographically distant populations,” explained Sangeet Lamichhaney, former PhD student at Uppsala University and shared first author on the paper.
“One of the most interesting genes is TSHR (thyroid- stimulating hormone receptor) because previous studies in birds and mammals have indicated that this gene has a key role in how animals time their reproduction in response to changes in day length,” Andersson said. “The fact that TSHR was the gene that showed the most consistent association with spawning time in the herring suggests that it has a similar role in fish.
“An important topic for future research is to reveal the molecular mechanism of how increasing day length leads to the initiation of spawning in spring spawners, whereas this response is delayed until August or September for autumn spawners,” he said.
“We think that the Atlantic herring has a capacity to respond well to at least moderate changes in the climate,” said Angela Fuentes-Pardo, a Dalhousie University, Canada, PhD student and shared first author on the paper. “Firstly, spawning time is not strictly genetically determined. Herring show some plasticity and adjust spawning time according to the water temperature.
“Secondly, our data suggest that there is a considerable amount of genetic variation affecting spawning time so the herring should be able to adapt genetically to moderate climate changes,” said Fuentes-Pardo.
The study also has important implications for fishery management of the Atlantic herring.
“By providing genetic markers that distinguish spring and autumn spawning herring outside the breeding season, a more sustainable fishery can be developed by optimising fishing among stocks according to their abundance,” said Dalhousie University professor Daniel Ruzzante, who is one of the senior authors of the study.
COLLEGE STATION, TX-In a new study published in PLoS Genetics, an international team of researchers report that two independent mutations are required to explain the development of the sex-linked barring pattern in chickens. Both mutations affect the function of CDKN2A, a tumor suppressor gene associated with melanoma in humans.
Leif Andersson, Uppsala University, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Texas A&M University, led the study that illustrates how useful domestic animals are as models for evolutionary processes in nature. Andersson argues that a similar evolution of gene variants comprising multiple genetic changes affecting the function of a single gene is the rule rather than the exception in natural populations.
Research in pigmentation biology has made major advances the last 20 years in identifying genes controlling variation in pigmentation in mammals and birds; however, the most challenging question is still how color patterns are genetically controlled. Birds are outstanding as regards the diversity and complexity in color patterning, according to Andersson.
The study published April 7 has revealed the genetic basis for the striped feather characteristic of sex-linked barring. Sex-linked barring refers to the alternating of pigmented (usually red or black) and apigmented (white) stripes that occur on certain breeds of chickens.
One example is the French breed Coucou de Rennes, the name of which refers to the fact that its plumage color resembles the barring patterns present in the common cuckoo (Cuculus
canorus). The sex-linked barring locus is on the Z chromosome. In chickens, as well as in other birds, the male has chromosomes ZZ while females have ZW.
“Our data show that sex-linked barring is caused by two independent mutations that act together. One is a regulatory mutation that increases the expression of CDKN2A. The other changes the protein sequence and makes the protein less functionally active,” Andersson said. “We are sure that both mutations contribute to the sex-linked barring pattern because we have also studied chicken that only carry the regulatory mutation and they show a very pale plumage with only weak dark stripes. Thus, this represents an evolutionary process in which the regulatory mutation occurred first followed by the mutation affecting the protein structure. The combined effect of the two mutations causes an even more appealing phenotype for the human eye.
Anderson also believes the most important reason for the extensive color variation among the domestic animals is that we appreciate its diversity, as long as the mutations underlying the variation are not causing health issues for the animals.
CDKN2A is a well-studied tumor suppressor gene that takes part in the regulation of cell division and cell survival. Mutations that inactivate CDKN2A are the most common explanation for familiar forms of melanomas in humans. However, the great majority of melanoma cases are not associated with a strong genetic risk factor.
“The gene variant underlying sex-linked barring has an opposite effect compared with the mutations causing melanoma in humans. Sex-linked barring is associated with a gene variant that makes CDKN2A more active, leading to a cyclic deficit of pigment cells and causing the white stripes during the development of an individual feather. It appears that pigment cells are particularly susceptible to changes in the function of CDKN2A as inactivating mutations in humans are associated with melanoma but rarely other cancer forms and activating mutations cause sex-linked barring in chickens but no other side effects are known,” said Doreen Schwochow Thalmann, PhD student and first author of the paper.
“It is fascinating that a large proportion of chickens used for egg and meat production around the world carry these mutations in a tumor suppressor gene. An example of such a breed is White Leghorn, which is one of the most prominent breeds used for egg production, but sex-linked barring is not apparent in these breeds because they also carry the dominant white color that eliminates all pigment production and masks the effect of sex-linked barring,” Andersson said.
On Thursday, January 26, 2017, the Graduate Student Association (GSA) and the Postdoctoral Association (PDA) at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) held their annual Spring Research Symposium.
This event has grown into a full-day of platform and poster presentations given by master’s and Ph.D. students from across the departments in the college and representing the diversity of research areas that reflect the breadth and depth of research in the CVM. This year’s symposium was one of the largest ever with 91 presentations by 75 different students.
Held for the first time at the Veterinary & Biomedical Educational Complex (VBEC), a new “Flash-Talk” format was introduced, in addition to traditional platform and poster presentations. During a Flash Talk, students give a brief and concise (three minutes with one static PowerPoint slide) idea of their research and a synthesis of their poster presentation.
Approximately 20 graduate faculty members from the CVM judged the student presentations resulting in the following awards given in recognition of outstanding work at the banquet held at Pebble Creek Country Club that evening. (People’s Choice awards were voted on by the entire audience.)
Graduate Student Posters:
First Place: Yang Gao, Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS); Dr. Qinglei Li, mentor
Second Place: Jessica Elswood, VIBS; Dr. Weston Porter, mentor
Third Place: Tae Kim, Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB); Dr. Albert Mulenga, mentor
People’s Choice: Jessica Elswood, VIBS; Dr. Weston Porter, mentor
First Place: Quinci Plumlee, VTPB; Dr. Jeff Cirillo, mentor
Second Place: Xi Li, Department of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology (VTPP); Dr. Stephen Safe, mentor
People’s Choice: Lindsay Dawson, VTPP; Dr. Ken Muneoka, mentor
Graduate Student Platforms:
First Place: Connor Dolan, VTPP; Dr. Ken Muneoka, mentor
First Place (tie): Cassandra Skenandore, VTPP; Dr. Annie Newell-Fugate, mentor
Second Place: Carlos Pinzon, VTPP; Dr. Charles Long, mentor
Second Place (tie): Joana Rocha, Department of Veterinary Large Animal Clinical Sciences (VLCS); Dr. Noah Cohen, mentor
People’s Choice: Hanah Georges, VTPP; Dr. Charles Long, mentor
Graduate Student Flash Talks:
First Place: Candice Chu, VTPB; Dr. Mary Nabity, mentor
People’s Choice: Candice Chu, VTPB; Dr. Mary Nabity, mentor
Postdoctoral Flash Talks:
First Place: Emily Schmitt, VIBS; Dr. Weston Porter, mentor
Each year, the Office of the Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies at the CVM also presents High Impact Achievement Awards at the research symposium banquet.
First Author Publication Award:
Amer Alhaboubi, VTPB; Dr. Maria Esteve-Gassent, mentor
Sabrina Clark, VTPB; Dr. Mary Nabity, mentor
Yang Gao, VIBS; Dr. Qinglei Li, mentor
Carolyn Hodo, VTPB; Dr. Sarah Hamer, mentor
Sherrelle Milligan, VTPB; Dr. Ann Kier, mentor
Italo Zecca, VIBS; Dr. Sarah Hamer, mentor
Alyssa Kasiraj (fourth-year DVM student), Department of Veterinary Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS); Dr. Jan Suchodolski, mentor
Small Grant Award:
Candice Chu, VTPB; Dr. Mary Nabity, mentor
Caitlin Curry, VTPB; Dr. James Derr, mentor
Rachel Curtis-Robles, VIBS; Dr. Sarah Hamer, mentor
Sina Marsilio (VSCS); Dr. Jörg Steiner, mentor
Large Grant Award:
Alyssa Meyers, VIBS; Dr. Sarah Hamer, mentor
Maral Molaei, VTPB; Dr. Jason Karpac, mentor
Constance Woodman, VTPB; Dr. Donald Brightsmith, mentor
The keynote speaker at the symposium banquet was Dr. Edward Hoover, university distinguished professor and past department head of the Departments of Pathology and Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology, at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. His talk was titled “Zombie Story: Chronic Wasting Disease of Cervids.”
The Spring Research Symposium is a key part of the Office of the Associate Dean of Research & Graduate Studies annual Doctoral Student Recruitment Weekend activities, providing a glimpse to potential students of the excellence in research that graduate students are able to accomplish at the CVM.
Dr. Nick Jeffery, professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), was recently accepted to publish his manuscript in PLOS ONE, an open access journal that publishes scientific research.
In addition, his paper and research is an example of the ‘one medicine’ approach, in that human and veterinary medicine are connected and can influence one another.
“This particular type of brain inflammation we treat in dogs has many similarities with multiple sclerosis (MS) in people,” Jeffery said. “So any parallels between the diseases might be useful in understanding causes and developing new treatments.”
Through his research, Jeffery found that the lack of a specific type of gut bacteria was associated with brain inflammation in dogs. This means investigations into changing the gut bacteria in dogs might also help with treatment of MS in people.
“Now we can investigate methods of altering the bacteria in the gut in dogs to see if we can help treat the brain inflammation,” Jeffery said. “It is possible that our findings may also help in treating people with MS.”
By publishing his work in PLOS ONE, Jeffery hopes to show veterinary research can be relevant to different parts of the medical field, such as human medicine. Jeffery said he chose to submit his work to PLOS ONE because it is a well-regarded journal that is also open access, meaning anyone can read it online for free.
“The open access aspect was important for this study because the results may have relevance or interest to many different groups, including dog owners, veterinarians, and human physicians,” Jeffery said.
Furthermore, Jeffery said the project was a result of collaboration and would like to thank the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation for their sponsorship of this project, the pet owners and veterinarians who contributed their time and effort, and especially Dr. Jan Suchodolski in the gastrointestinal lab at the CVM.
Figure caption: 3T T2W axial MR image at the level of the caudal colliculus illustrating the typical hyperintensity (*) that is often prominent adjacent to the ventricles in cases of MUO.
What program combined public health, environmental health, and animal health to answer two research societal needs? Two Texas A&M students, Clara Bush (veterinary student), and Jarius Pulczinski (graduate student), participated in the thirteen-week on- campus summer Veterinary Medical Scientist Research Training Program (VMSRTP)(http://vetmed.tamu.edu/vmsrtp). Their scholarships were sponsored by the Texas A&M One Health Initiative. Each student was provided the opportunity to address a societal need, conduct hands-on research and identify One Health solutions working alongside accomplished faculty mentors. The students analyzed and presented their individual research findings at the Veterinary Medical Scientist Research Training Program Research Conference ( http://vetmed.tamu.edu/vmsrtp/about-the-vmsrtp/research-conference) and the Merial-NIH National Veterinary Scholars Symposium ( http://www.merialscholars.com/Pages/national-symposium2016.aspx) at The Ohio State University
Jarius, a public health MS graduate student, was mentored by Dr. Natalie Johnson (https://sph.tamhsc.edu/eoh/faculty/johnson.html), an assistant professor in the Environmental and Occupational Health Department at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. Jarius’s research examined the relationship between air pollution exposure and health outcomes in humans and mice. Dr. Johnson explained that Jairus, “compared data from a mouse model of prenatal air pollution exposure-induced asthma and from a maternal exposure characterization study in a population with high rates of childhood asthma. He measured inflammatory markers reflective of maternal air pollution exposure in human and mouse samples to investigate the link between maternal inflammation and asthma susceptibility.” Dr. Johnson observed that this summer the program led to new insights about opportunities at the interface of human and animal research.
Clara, a second-year veterinary student, was mentored by Dr. Raquel Rech (http://vetmed.tamu.edu/vtpb/directorydetail?userid=12806), a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology at Texas A&M University. Clara’s research will ultimately impact the creation of a pig model to study Environmental Enteropathy, a Gastrointestinal (GI) disease in humans. “I worked to determine what tissue fixative best preserved the mucous layer of the colon in pig colonic samples,” Clara explained about her research “In the future, the use of optimal tissue handling and fixation will be an important aid in the further discovery of more targeted treatments and therapies for GI disease in veterinary medicine and human medicine alike.”
Clara’s response to this experience was, “Overall the program was a confidence booster for me, as a person who had never been on the presenting end of a scientific research project. It gave me the push to explore other career options and opportunities that I might not have known about.” She added, “This program was such a great way to break into the field of veterinary medicine which truly exemplifies a collaborative effort. Not only was I able to gain valuable laboratory skills that I can take with me far beyond veterinary school, but I was also able to get a first-hand look at the way the “One Health” concept works in real life.”
Information about One Health student programs and opportunities are available through the Texas A&M One Health Initiative (http://onehealth.tamu.edu).
When researchers try to uncover the cause of disease, they commonly start with two questions: Did a quirk in the patient’s genes open the door to illness, or did exposure to environmental factors play havoc with the patient’s health?
Very often, both genes and the environment are at least partly to blame, and to provide the most effective treatment, health care providers need to know as much as possible about how they work together.
With support from a $5.3 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, scientists from Texas A&M; University and Johns Hopkins University will further investigate how individuals’ health is affected by the environment and genetics. Two NIH units-The National Human Genome Research Institute and The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences-will provide the funding over a five-year period.
David Threadgill, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M; Institute for Genome Sciences and Society at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and professor and holder of the Tom and Jean McMullin Chair of Genetics at the Texas A&M; College of Medicine is co-lead on the project, along with Andrew Feinberg, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and director of the Center for Epigenetics at Johns Hopkins.
Research on how genetics work in concert with the environment to affect health is a relatively new area of research, according to Threadgill. “For the last several decades, research has largely focused on genetic differences that are associated with disease,” he said. “However, the environment, particularly intersecting with genetics, probably has a much larger impact on our health.”
Threadgill will provide the expertise in genetics and clinical phenotyping for the project. “My research group has a long-standing interest in how environmental exposures, such as chemicals and diet, interact with our genetics to impact future health and disease,” he added, “and importantly how this knowledge can be used to reduce the health impacts of detrimental environmental exposures.”
Epigenetics is the study of genetic activity changes that occur without alteration of the basic DNA sequences. Sometimes, epigenetic changes triggered by environmental factors lead to serious health problems. As a first step toward averting or treating such illnesses, researchers need to figure out precisely how this process unfolds.
“The environment is perhaps the major contributor to human disease, yet its effect is virtually impossible to control for in human genetic studies,” Feinberg said. “One example of how this team will try to get around this problem is by studying a very genetically diverse set of animal models and an environmental issue that is important to many people: exposure to lead and how it is linked to significant health and behavioral issues.”
The team will use advanced genomic and mathematical methods to gather data and relate these findings directly to human disease population studies in order to understand how our distinct genomes and individual exposures to environmental factors affect human health.
“We are using epigenetic information,” Feinberg said, “to understand how genes and environment connect as information that reprograms our bodies in early development to behave in a healthy or unhealthy way, and how it sets us up for adverse responses to stressors later in life. In particular, we are studying lead exposure in the mouse model, and then will connect these results to a large group of urban lead-exposed people in Baltimore and the behavioral effects this exposure causes.”
“This is one of several collaborative projects we are working on to address how the environment alters our epigenome to influence health and disease,” Threadgill said. “We hope that this work will lay the foundation for understanding the mechanisms by which the environment alters our health and to identify interventions that can reduce the negative impacts of disease.”
Testing drug safety and efficacy is challenging, expensive, and time consuming. Recent advancements have given way to what is known as “tissue chips.” These tiny bioengineered systems mimic the larger, complex organs and tissues of the human body. The chips may improve our ability to ensure that a drug is safe before clinical trials begin and could ultimately replace drug testing in humans and animals.
A team of Texas A&M; University researchers, led by Dr. Ivan Rusyn, will be working to advance tissue chip research through a recently awarded $4.2 million grant by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Advancing Translation Sciences (NCATS). This award will establish a state-of-the-art, tissue chip-testing infrastructure, known as Texas A&M; Tissue Chip Validation (TEX-VAL) Center. The center will work with tissue chip developers to test and validate their devices. This work will help facilitate and further the use of tissue chips for drug and chemical testing in both the United States and Europe.
“TEX-VAL Center will conduct testing in the microphysiological systems developed by a number of NIH grantees,” said Dr. Ivan Rusyn, professor at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and principal investigator. “Our goal is to provide resources, personnel, and infrastructure for establishing functionality, reproducibility, robustness, and reliability of tissue chip models that represent a wide array of human organ and tissue systems.”
Currently, many researchers use conventional tissue cultures to test drug efficacy, but tissue chips offer a more physiologically relevant model that better imitates whole human tissues and organs, Rusyn said.
Although many are researching how to create tissue chips and testing their physiological function, TEX-VAL Center takes the research a step further. “The next important step is to demonstrate that tissue chips may be transferred to the laboratories and companies outside of the developers’ lab and shown to perform equally well and on a wide range of drugs and chemicals,” Rusyn said.
The project is a collaborative effort and includes faculty from across Texas A&M;’s campus and beyond. “The team of senior investigators and staff at TEX-VAL Center has been assembled to address all aspects of the tissue chip technology development and use,” Rusyn said. “Our team includes experts in toxicology, in vitro and in vivo testing, microscopy, genomics, pharmacokinetic modeling, bioengineering, analytical chemistry, and risk assessment.”
Other TEX-VAL collaborators are: Dr. Weihsueh Chiu, Dr. Robert Burghardt, Dr. Candice Brinkmeyer-Langford at the CVM; Dr. Clifford Stephan at the Texas A&M; Institute of Biosciences and Technology; Dr. Terry Wade with the Texas A&M; Geosciences and Environmental Research Group; Dr. Arum Han in the Texas A&M; College of Engineering, and Dr. Michael Mancini at the Baylor College of Medicine.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Mitral valve disease (MVD) accounts for approximately 75 percent of all canine heart disease. However, a recent global clinical trial led by a Texas A&M; University veterinarian was published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine (Sept 2016). The trial shows that early treatment can slow progression of the disease, prolonging overall survival and helping patients remain symptom free for longer.
The trial, titled “Effect of Pimobendan in Dogs with Preclinical Myxomatous Mitral Valve Disease (MMVD) and Cardiomegaly” (EPIC), is the largest clinical study ever to be conducted in veterinary cardiology. The trial found pimobendan, a drug treatment, is effective in delaying the onset of clinical signs for an average of 15 months in dogs with increased heart size secondary to preclinical MMVD.
“I am excited about the results of this groundbreaking study and proud to be a part of the EPIC team,” said Dr. Sonya Gordon, associate professor at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science and a lead investigator in the study. “The results of this clinical trial will change the way the most common cause of heart disease and heart failure in the dog is managed on a day-to-day basis by veterinarians around the world and contribute to dogs with MMVD living better and longer.”
The study is the largest prospective cardiology study in veterinary medicine and took place over the course of seven years. The study was terminated early following an interim analysis as the evidence was considered conclusive, and it was deemed unethical to continue to withhold treatment from the placebo group.
EPIC was an international effort run by specialized veterinary cardiologists at 36 trial centers. Half of the trial centers were in the United States, while the other 18 centers were in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The 360 canine patients enrolled in the trial randomly received pimobendan or a placebo, with 180 dogs in each group. Gordon and her colleagues at Texas A&M; treated 16 of those dogs.
These findings will allow veterinarians to offer pimobendan as a treatment for dogs with heart enlargement as a consequence of MMVD to delay congestive heart failure and prolong survival. “Thanks to the EPIC study results, vets no longer have to adopt a ‘watch and wait’ approach to suspected preclinical cases of MVD. When a typical mitral valve murmur is detected, vets should now investigate further to look for cardiac enlargement. If demonstrated, this suggests the patient will probably benefit from treatment with pimobendan before the onset of clinical signs,” said Dr. Adrian Boswood, professor of veterinary cardiology at the Royal College of London and a lead investigator of the study.
Full and final results of the study, which was sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim, were presented for the first time the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Forum in June 2016 of this year.