Texas A&M Develops New Vaccine To Combat Lethal Disease Affecting Captive Parrots

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Researchers at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) have developed a highly effective vaccine against a lethal virus disease of captive parrots. The disease, called Proventricular Dilatation Disease (PDD), results in blindness, heart failure, or intestinal blockage. It is caused by a virus called Avian Bornavirus. Use of the vaccine against this virus prevented the development of disease in captive birds with no obvious adverse effects.

Proventricular Dilatation DiseaseThe investigators-Drs. Ian Tizard, Jianhua Guo, Susan Payne, and Samer Hameed-work at the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center at the CVM. The research was supported by the Schubot Center and the college. The center is dedicated to conducting research that will improve the health and quality of life of both captive and wild birds. While currently focusing on diseases of parrots, investigators at the center are also studying diseases of water birds, quail, and cranes.

“Proventricular Dilatation disease is an especially nasty infection that kills large numbers of captive birds each year,” said Dr. Ian Tizard, the project leader. “Parrot owners are naturally very distressed when their beloved pet dies in such a manner. The new vaccine is expected to stop the development of this disease and prevent much suffering.”

The next step in the development of this vaccine will be to seek USDA licensure and then to manufacture the vaccine commercially. This will require extensive field-testing to ensure that the vaccine is safe and that it is effective in many species of pet birds. Thus it will take some time before the vaccine becomes available to parrot owners. Current plans are to market the vaccine through avian veterinarians.

The pace of the additional studies will naturally depend upon the resources available. Current resources are limited, so it is difficult to state when this vaccine will be available to parrot owners.

Dr. Dindot Working With Students on Autism Research

Through their own initiative, both Dylan Ritter-a sophomore at the University of Mississippi-and Kathleen Nelson-a high school senior from Illinois-discovered Dr. Scott Dindot’s genomics lab. While their friends took off for vacation and summer fun, they chose to come to Texas A&M University to work on autism research with Dindot in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. Their passion is to advance the knowledge of autistic disorders so that others may benefit in the future.

Dr. Dindot with students

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 68 individuals have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Most children are diagnosed when they see a physician. Typically they miss their developmental milestones, but often their parents and other caregivers notice social deficits. Since autism is a spectrum disorder, it varies considerably from individual to individual, but primary signals include social communication deficits, learning disability, and repetitive behaviors.

Ritter and Nelson are interested in autism research because Ritter’s younger brother has Chromosome 15q Duplication syndrome (Dup15q) and Nelson’s older brother has Angelman syndrome, both forms of autism and intellectual disability. Recognizing that both of these young students are exceptional and possess a drive for advancing research in the disorders that have affected their families, Dindot welcomed them into his lab. He was impressed by the drive that brought both students to College Station-away from friends, family, and everyone they know-to help others who have experienced a similar diagnosis.

“Dylan could be doing anything,” Dindot said, “but he’s here. He was awarded a grant from the Autism Science Foundation that supports undergraduate student research. This is an extremely prestigious award, and students from all around the country compete for these funds. The other recipients this year are from Stanford, Yale, and the University of California Santa Barbara. These students are the cream of the crop. This is a national competition. It’s a very competitive, very prestigious award. It’s a credit to Dylan’s drive that he received the grant.”

Ritter – a sophomore at the University of Mississippi – has no connection to Dindot other than the fact that he saw a press release about Dindot’s lab developing a Dup15q mouse model.  He contacted Dindot saying that his brother had Dup15q syndrome, and that he wanted to come help and be involved in the research however he could.

Nelson, similar to Ritter, found Dindot through the Foundation for Angelman Syndrome Therapeutics, which funds two research projects in Dindot’s lab . Kathleen wants to be a physician and was looking for things to do that will help her achieve that goal. Because of her brother’s condition, she asked her family if she could work in Dindot’s lab and learn about what they’re doing.

“Both of these students are very similar in terms of the emotional connection to this work,” Dindot said. “It’s a very personal, extremely important topic. They’ve chosen to pursue this with that in mind. They could be doing anything during their summer break, but they are here at A&M researching the conditions that affect their siblings.  I can’t think of anything more commendable or inspirational.”

EPA Awards Texas A&M Researchers $6 Million Grant to Investigate Environmental Impact on Cardiac Health

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded a $6 million grant to fund a multi-institutional collaboration between the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) and the Bioinformatics Research Center at North Carolina State University (NCSU) investigating the effects of environmental toxicants on human health with a focus on the potential adverse effects on the heart.

Dr. Ivan Rusyn
Dr. Ivan Rusyn

The large project is led by Dr. Ivan Rusyn, professor of veterinary integrative biosciences at the CVM. He and his team will develop and validate a novel approach to studies of chemical safety in both human cells and in mice.

“I am very pleased with the support that the Environmental Protection Agency has extended to the areas of in vitro and computational toxicology,” Rusyn said. “Research and development activities in the center will be directed at improving the scientific basis for decisions and will create solutions that can be immediately utilized by the stakeholders in environmental health sciences: the industry, the non-governmental organizations, and the state and federal regulators.”

According to Rusyn, the growing list of chemical substances in commerce and the complexity of environmental exposures represent an enormous challenge to the regulatory agencies that examine the toxic potential of chemical exposures. Traditional chemical safety testing evaluates only major potential health hazards of concern to human health, such as the ability of environmental chemicals to lead to cancer, cellular damage, or to long-term negative impacts on reproductive health. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 23 percent of the global incidence of heart disease, a leading cause of death, may be attributable to environmental chemicals. The ability to assess non-pharmaceutical agents for cardiac toxicity testing has lagged behind other advanced efforts to create animal and cell-based models for studies of chemical safety.

“As an institution committed to the One Health initiative, this award from the EPA will significantly strengthen cross disciplinary research aimed at improving the health and well-being of both animals and humans that share the same environmental risks,” said Dr. Robert Burghardt, associate dean for research and graduate studies.

Joining Rusyn on the project team are co-principal investigators Dr. David Threadgill, professor in the Department of Molecular & Cellular Medicine at the Texas A&M; Health Science Center and the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology at the CVM, and Dr. Fred Wright, professor of statistics at NCSU.

“The major outcome of our work will be development and validation of a population-based human and mouse organotypic culture model for characterizing variability in cardiac toxicity,” Threadgill said.

“By adding an inter-individual variability dimension to the studies of environmental chemicals and drugs safety, we enable greater precision in toxicological findings,” added Wright.

The grant will establish the research center with Texas A&M; serving as the lead institution. The long-term objective of the center is to advance the field of environmental health by establishing and validating effective, accurate, and fiscally responsible means for identifying and characterizing cardiac chemical hazards.

“Texas A&M; has a tradition of high-impact research,” said Dr. Eleanor Green, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “The opportunity to establish and to lead this multi-institutional research center is a testament to Dr. Rusyn’s excellence and that of his colleagues. It is notable that Dr. Rusyn is one of our President’s Senior Hires supported by the Chancellor’s Research Initiative. This grant not only demonstrates the wisdom of this program but also the fulfillment of the stated goals by these outstanding faculty.”

The project was initiated as the result of recent advances in the development of models of functional cardiac muscle cells. This has led to new prospects for simulating complex chemical outcome pathways in the beating heart. Funding began June 1, 2015 and will carry through May 31, 2019.

CVM Professor Honored with University-Level Distinguished Achievement Award in Research

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The Texas A&M Association of Former Students (AFS) honored Dr. Mark Westhusin of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) faculty with a University-Level Distinguished Achievement Award in Research, one of the highest honors presented by the AFS.

Dr. Mark Westhusin
Dr. Mark Westhusin

“Dr. Westhusin has been an outstanding member of our faculty for many years, and his contributions to veterinary science and the progress he has made in the advancement of animal and human health are immeasurable,” said Dr. Eleanor Green, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “We are indebted to him for his unsurpassed excellence in animal cloning and congratulate him for being a recipient of this award.”Westhusin, a professor in the Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology (VTPP) at the CVM, focuses his research on animal cloning. His laboratory group has successfully cloned more different species (cow, goat, pig, horse, cat, and white-tailed deer) than any other institution in the world, including the first cat and first white-tailed deer.

Westhusin’s most recent work has advanced the knowledge of the role genes play in disease resistance and protein synthesis. The results of his research will lead to improving the quality of protein sources available in developing countries, to the increased safety of the food supply, and to the ability to protect populations of people from devastating insect-borne diseases.

“He is one of the finest and most productive faculty members whom we have had the privilege to work with in our department and college,” said Dr. John N. Stallone, interim head of VTPP. “He is a most worthy recipient of an Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Award in Research.”

Each honoree will receive a framed certificate from the AFS along with a $4,000 monetary award. The awards, begun in 1955, recognize outstanding members of Texas A&M’s faculty and staff for their commitment, performance, and positive impact on Aggie students, Texas citizens, and the world around them.

Texas A&M researcher contributes to important public debate concerning biological risks of feedlot dust

Dr. H. Morgan Scott, a veterinary epidemiologist in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology at Texas A&M University, along with colleagues at West Texas A&M University and Kansas State University, recently participated in an important academic debate concerning biological risks associated with feedlot dust in west Texas. Their views were featured in an April 3, 2015 article posted below. The debate stems from a recent peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP); subsequent media coverage of the paper has resulted in a few misleading headlines and news articles concerning the spread of “superbugs.” Dr. Scott and colleagues contend that in the EHP paper several inferences were presented as conclusions, when in reality they remain untested hypotheses. Contrary to much of the media representation of this research, the data do not indicate whether there were any viable bacteria present in the samples; therefore, there is no direct evidence of “superbugs.” The likelihood of non-viable bacterial genes transforming into other living bacteria is of very low probability, and thus the biological risk associated with the dust must be considered extremely low. Ongoing public concerns about antimicrobial use and resistance in animal agriculture continue to this day; an important component of addressing those concerns is healthy debate and discussion among scientists.

Scientists dispute study on antibiotic residues in feed yard dust

By John Maday, Editor, Bovine Veterinarian

In January, we covered a report from Texas Tech University’s Institute of Environmental and Human Health, outlining a study in which researchers detected antibiotic residues, bacteria and genetic material related to antibiotic resistance in particulate matter downwind of Texas feed yards.

The research paper, titled “Antibiotics, Bacteria, and Antibiotic Resistance Genes: Aerial Transport from Cattle Feed Yards via Particulate Matter,” was published in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives.

Last week, Michael D. Apley, DVM, PhD at Kansas State University, Samuel E. Ives, DVM, PhD at West Texas A&M University and H. Morgan Scott, DVM, PhD at Texas A&M University released a white paper citing concerns over the conclusions listed in the Texas Tech report.

The three research veterinarians focused on issues of bacterial viability, likelihood of bacterial re-population and the concentration of antimicrobials found in the feed yard particulates.

“In this paper, many inferences are presented as conclusions when in reality they are actually untested hypotheses,” they wrote. Contrary to much of the media representation of this research, the data do not indicate that there are any viable bacteria present in their samples. The likelihood of non-viable bacterial genes transforming into other living bacteria is of very low probability. The antimicrobial concentrations used in this study are not grounded in appropriate air and soil volume concentrations and do not accurately represent the dispersion and dilution of these agents in the environment.” In an interview published this week in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives, Dr. Ives says “qPCR techniques only reveal the presence of bacteria, not their viability. That doesn’t translate to transference to the environment and beyond.”

Read the full white paper from Drs. Apley, Ives and Scott.

Treatment of Canine Mitral Valve Disease Shows Promise

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Mitral valve disease accounts for approximately 75% of all canine heart disease, but a recently finished clinical trial shows that a potential treatment might help. The trial, titled “Evaluating Pimobendan In Cardiomegaly” (EPIC), is the largest clinical study ever to be conducted among dogs with myxomatous mitral valve disease (MMVD), the leading cause of heart disease and heart failure in dogs. It evaluated the effectiveness of pimobendan in delaying the onset of clinical signs of congestive heart failure in dogs with increased heart size secondary to pre-clinical MMVD.

Dr. Sonya GordonA mid-study analysis in mid-February 2015 indicated that pimobendan is clearly beneficial and did not raise any concern over the administration of pimobendan.  Based on these results the interim analysis committee recommended that the study be stopped and the lead investigators-Dr. Sonya Gordon, associate professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Science at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; Dr. Adrian Boswood at the Royal Veterinary College, Veterinary Clinical Sciences, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, UK; and Dr. Jens Häggström of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science, Uppsala, Sweden-ended the study as of March 1, 2015..

“I am excited about the results of this groundbreaking study and proud to be a part of the EPIC team,” Gordon said. “The results of this clinical trial have the potential to 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.”

The study was a prospective double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, international, multi-center clinical study-the so-called “gold standard” of clinical trials. Specialized veterinary cardiologists at 36 trial centers, half of which were in the United States, ran the trial. (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 were randomly allocated to either a pimobendan or a placebo treatment group, with 180 dogs in each group. Gordon and her colleagues at Texas A&M saw 16 of those dogs.

Full and final results of the study, which was sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim, are expected at a later date.

Running for a Cause: How Putting Yucatan Miniature Pigs on Treadmills Helps Fight Heart Disease

If you walk by Dr. Cristine Heaps’ lab on a sunny afternoon in the spring, you may see Yucatán miniature pigs running on treadmills.

Dr. Cristine HeapsHeaps, an associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), studies the effects of exercise on heart disease using these pigs. Adaptations in the heart during exercise intrigued Heaps, who was involved in athletics from a young age.

Exercise puts demands on a body, causing the heart to beat faster and move blood more quickly through the cardiovascular system. A person with heart disease may be fine while watching a rerun of Survivor; however, after the show is over and the person is sweating like a pig while pushing a lawn mower, he may suddenly have a heart attack.

Risk factors, such as obesity and lack of physical activity, contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease. According to the 2013 Overweight and Obesity Update by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 50% (154.7 million) of Americans 20 years and older are overweight. As obesity rates increase in other countries, the number of deaths caused by cardiovascular disease will also rise.

So why use pigs in research? A pig’s cardiovascular system functions similarly to a human’s. Likewise, the pig body mimics a human’s in response to exercise; therefore, running pigs with heart disease on treadmills models humans with heart disease exercising.

Arranging for approximately 100-pound Yucatán miniature pigs to run on a treadmill you might see at a local gym is both labor-intensive and expensive, so this type of model is uncommon. In fact, Heaps’ lab is one of the few in the United States using a pig model combining heart disease and exercise.

Researchers elsewhere contact her to collaborate. Dr. Steven Fisher, a physician and recent collaborator from the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, contacted Heaps to help with his research because she uses this model. “Very few labs have this model,” Fisher said. “Coronary heart disease is very difficult to model.” A recent study by Heaps and Fisher indicates exercise may increase the heart’s sensitivity to drugs such as Viagra. In addition to her recent collaboration with Fisher, Heaps also works with faculty at both the CVM and the Texas A&M Health Science Center.

Often waiting in silence, cardiovascular disease is deadly until conditions are right, such as exacerbation by exercise. This disease has not only severe, often fatal, health implications but economic repercussions as well. Heaps noted, “Billions to hundreds of billions of dollars and productivity are lost to heart disease.”


Museum “crusties” Foster Collaboration Between Geneticists and Smithsonian

Museums are a repository of many artifacts collected in times gone by, and the Smithsonian holds one of the United States’ best collections. Its Division of Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History houses a world-class collection of roughly 590,000 preserved specimens, many of which are available to researchers, including Dr. Bill Murphy, a mammalian geneticist in the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).

Dr. Bill MurphyMurphy’s background in comparative genomics and mammalian phylogenetics helps him determine the ancestral relationships between different groups of species, when they originated, what factors drove them to diversify, and what processes led to their distribution around the globe. In his journey to discover these connections, Murphy has taken advantage of the hard work already accomplished on species collection trips over a century ago.

Since 2002, Murphy has been collaborating with a mammalogist, Dr. Kris Helgen, on the methodology of using museum specimens to extract mammalian DNA. But the practice really advanced in 2008 when the pair started exploring the mammals collection at the Smithsonian, where Helgen is the curator in charge of mammals. Their goal is to use DNA from museum specimens to understand how rare or unusual groups of mammals fit into the mammalian family tree. Murphy brings the genetic component to the collaboration, whereas Helgen brings the curatorial and mammalogy background to help classify and understand mammals more thoroughly.

The field of museum-based genetics had its origins in the early 1990s, according to Murphy. Although many studies with museum specimens have been conducted in the past, Murphy wondered how well DNA could be recovered from these specimens and in large amounts without contamination. Also, he wanted to determine if the new  next-generation sequencing techniques might reveal a more accurate resolution of ancient DNA sequences, as well as larger datasets for phylogenetic analysis. Typically, previous researchers have chosen to extract DNA from the hide or hair of specimens because it is more abundant, but there is an increased risk of contamination from being handled over the years. Using hide samples can also be more problematic because hides are often chemically treated for preservation.

To avoid analyzing DNA from specimens where the possibility of sample contamination is high, Murphy and his team implemented an alternative approach to sampling. “We developed an approach where we extract DNA from the ‘crusties’ as we call them,” said Murphy. “When you examine skulls in museum collections, they are usually pretty clean. But if you look inside the brain case you can actually see tidbits, little remnants of dried tissue that have been sitting there for a 100–150 years. For the most part these tissues have never been exposed to human contact, so we figured there would be less contamination. This approach is also less destructive since museums like to avoid damaging specimens, such as drilling into bones or taking hair and tissue samples, at all costs. No one can tell if you’ve removed a bit of tissue from inside a skull.”

Murphy and his team have found that they can get an extraordinary amount of acceptable and quality DNA from these tissues. And with the new sequencing technologies, Murphy has found that the DNA sequencing is simplified with degraded “crusties” more than if one starts with fresh or frozen tissue.

With this methodology researchers can also reduce or avoid the costs and time associated with trapping animals in the field, applying for permits and permissions, and traveling; they can take advantage of the work done a century before that resides within museums. This method also allows geneticists to access and sequence DNA from extinct species. Murphy is working on such a project with a colleague in South America to extract ancient DNA from extinct ungulate megafauna groups, such as a Toxodon, a rhinoceros-like species that went extinct in the Pleistocene.

Historically, mammals have been classified into small groups and researchers believed that if species share the same morphology, or physical characteristic, they must be related. But with the new sequencing technology, genetics has revealed that parallel evolution, the development of similar physical characteristics in related but distinct species, is happening among the whole mammalian tree. According to Murphy, “Among the 4,500 mammal species identified in 2005, geneticists now believe there are roughly 6,000 species as a result of molecular techniques, but there is speculation that there are probably close to 10,000 species of mammals.”

Murphy has used the technology and museum specimens at the Smithsonian to study colugos, the closest known living relative to primates found throughout the islands of Southeast Asia. “Colugos are one of the most poorly known groups of mammals, and the problem is they are not found in zoos and you can’t sample colugos from across Southeast Asia very easily. So we turned to museum specimens,” said Murphy. He feels that by understanding the genome of colugos, we can understand the genetic transition to primates. In his team’s analysis of 13 specimens in one area alone, it was determined there were probably as many as five or 10 species, whereas it was believed that only two existed.

Murphy and his team’s technique has yielded promising and successful results. “We have not had too many limitations. Most of the samples for which we have attempted DNA extraction have been highly successful. The results have been so promising that we have proposed a much more concerted effort of using only museum specimens to identify the true number of mammal species on Earth,” said Murphy.

However, different museums preserve specimens differently, and their location also affects the quality of the samples. For example, a museum located in a tropical environment has to battle with factors such as mold and bacterial growth, and having temperature-controlled rooms to avoid mold and bacterial growth can help with this. Other elements, such as how specimens are preserved and handled, also have an effect on a sample’s quality.

Since 2008, Murphy has been a research associate at the Smithsonian, and he travels there about once every one to two years. In the company of Helgen, Murphy and his graduate student, Victor Mason, have also visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research in Singapore. Along with studying colugos, the pair has also studied cat species and other endangered species in Southeast Asia. “There are probably many undiscovered, cryptic species in Southeast Asia, and this is an ongoing focus of the collaboration with the Smithsonian,” said Murphy.

“Molecular genetic technologies have rapidly changed the way in which mammals are classified. We can also look at genetic diversity within species 100 years ago and compare them with today to see how human influences have affected their genetic diversity,” said Murphy. The technology and use of museum specimens extends beyond studying mammals and can be utilized to study other species as well.

The National Museum Of Natural History

Dr. H. Morgan Scott: Viewing Epidemiology through a Different Lens

Dr. H. Morgan Scott has ridden his bicycle around the world, but he keeps coming back to College Station. Scott, an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert who taught at Texas A&M University from 2001–2009, has returned to the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science (CVM) after a stretch as the E.J. Frick Endowed Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University. He will lead the development of the Microbial Ecology and Molecular Epidemiology (ME2) research laboratory at the CVM as a tenured epidemiology professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology.

Dr. H. Morgan ScottDr. Scott didn’t originally plan to be an epidemiologist, however. The Canada native first encountered epidemiology while pursuing a DVM from University of Saskatchewan, when an eccentric professor who incorporated props into each lecture piqued Scott’s interest. Once Scott graduated in 1988 and started working as a practitioner at larger cattle farms, he realized that his veterinary training wasn’t extensive enough to tackle the issues at hand. “These farms had herd health questions that were simple on the surface, but very difficult to answer,” Scott said.

Heading into the Ph.D. program at the University of Guelph in the Canadian province of Ontario, he fully intended to get back into veterinary practice one day. Instead, he turned to epidemiology to explore the best methods of reducing disease burden in animals.

Today Scott is establishing ME2 at the CVM, but at the time, Scott shared that he never envisioned having a lab. “I saw the world as my lab-which is clichéd and naïve,” Scott said. He soon realized that in order to conduct experiments, he needed a controlled area for his research-which he couldn’t outsource. He learned to work with colleagues in different fields to meet his research needs and gain access to other useful and pertinent data.

As it turns out, cross-disciplinary collaboration has become a hallmark of Scott’s career. He began postdoctoral studies in public health and research in risk analysis at the University of Alberta in 1999. While in Alberta, he shared an office with a moral philosopher, a sociologist, a toxicologist, an occupational hygienist, a civil engineer, and an ethicist. “I developed an enormous appreciation for the other aspects of human health, of how humans behave with respect to everything we do,” said Scott. “This also applies to farming and agriculture. People like to say the farming business is entirely economic, but it’s not.”

Now he continues to work with researchers in other disciplines and understands one person can’t be an expert in everything. “Projects end up being more exciting this way. It’s about evaluating what people bring to the table and recognizing you can appreciate each other, which makes science fun,” Scott said. “You read a crazy idea and say, ‘Hey, maybe we can make that work here.'”

Dr. H. Morgan ScottMembers of ME2 study zoonotic disease control to improve food safety and public health. Scott ultimately hopes to reduce resistance to antibiotics among zoonotic bacteria, which can be transferred from animals to humans. He examines and observes how bacteria compete against each other in areas with finite resources, like within an animal’s digestive system. Scott and his team use microbiological and molecular methods to measure whether certain bacteria are resistant to antibiotics. These researchers also use genetic tools including recent moves into whole genome sequencing to observe how one strain of a bacterium is particularly successful at outcompeting others.

Scott’s lab is being stationed in the new Veterinary Research Building annex, and he has filled the 1400-square-foot space with top-of-the-line equipment. His research will be conducted entirely out of ME2 with the assistance of a six-person (and growing) team, which will include CVM graduate students. ME2 receives some of its start-up funding from the Chancellor’s Research Initiative, among others.

“Dr. Scott’s efforts in the laboratory will translate to an innovative and dynamic learning opportunity for our graduate and veterinary students,” said Dr. Linda Logan, former head of the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology. “Learning from his experiences will prepare our graduate students with practical and applied knowledge and skill sets for future roles in government, industry, and academia.”

An integral part of Scott’s work is rooted in communication with the public. During his more than 20-year career, Scott has seen food safety information grow from nonexistent to routine and systematic. He briefly worked as an epidemiologist for the Food Safety Division of the Government of Alberta in 2000, where he learned to use foodborne pathogens as a way to measure whether an intervention was effective. There he helped establish and monitor food safety outcomes; this research involved collecting data on foodborne disease pathogens in particular areas. While there have been some improvements in surveillance on the human side, scientists still don’t know the extent of antibiotic use on the animal side. “Molecular work lets you trace an organism back to its origin, see how it’s changed over time, observe its lineage, and note its acquisition of resistance,” Scott said. “In terms of how we use antibiotics [in animals], we still don’t have any broad and useful national data at this point.”

Scott says that how to use these data to effect policy change isn’t a question for scientists, but rather a discussion for the public. Society has to decide if it wants these data to be used to make informed decisions about the continued use of antibiotics in its food production systems. At that point, discourse leaves the scientific arena and enters into political debate. For example, in an October 2014 interview for PBS Frontline, Scott discussed how his team noticed that cephalosporin, an antibiotic, was losing its effectiveness among Gram-negative bacteria, which can have adverse effects on human health. When researchers tried using an alternative antibiotic, tetracycline, to reduce resistance to cephalosporin, the resistance to cephalosporin actually increased. “If someone wants me to detail the best way to use antibiotics, I can’t actually give them that answer at the moment,” Scott said. “The timeline of resistance development spans decades, and decisions on how to use antibiotics need to project at least that far into the future.”

With his interdisciplinary approach to research, Scott says being at a large, multiservice university like Texas A&M is very appealing. On such a large campus, there are ample opportunities to collaborate with people working nearby. He recalls that even when he first started at Texas A&M in 2001, he received nothing but support for his research. “I always have lots of encouragement to pursue my interests,” Scott said.

Scott’s areas of expertise complement the CVM’s One Health Initiative, which explores the connections between human, animal, and environmental health. He notes that measures taken in animal agriculture affect human health and vice versa. “My work sits at the intersection of agriculture, human health, and human activity in general,” Scott said.

In addition to leading the ME2 lab, Scott will teach graduate courses on risk analysis as well as disease detection and surveillance. He is the immediate past president of the Association for Veterinary Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine and an advisor to the World Health Organization Advisory Group on Integrated Surveillance for Antimicrobial Resistance. His wife, Dr. Cheryl Herman, also returns to the CVM as a clinical associate professor of anatomy. They continue to cycle when they can find the time.

Powerful Collaborations Work to Solve Multifactorial Salmonella Challenge

“We’ve made little progress in reducing the incidence of salmonellosis in people over the last 15 years. As a result, salmonella remains one of our predominant threats to food safety,” said Dr. Kevin Cummings, assistant professor of epidemiology in the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).

Powerful Collaboration SalmonellaOne of the reasons for the relative lack of progress may be the complex ecology of the bacterium itself. “Salmonella can be found in the gastrointestinal tract of a very wide range of hosts,” Cummings said. “In addition, it can survive for extended periods of time in a broad array of environments. These features make salmonella a formidable challenge.”

Most coverage of salmonella in the popular press has revolved around outbreaks that resulted from food consumption, and Cummings notes that this is still the most common pathway for salmonella infection. However, he also adds that the role that direct contact with infected animals plays in salmonella infection is generally underestimated. “The bottom line is that in addition to our vigilance with food safety, we must practice safe animal contact,” Cummings said. “As for the foodborne cases, it’s also important to remember that large outbreaks actually represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of overall disease burden.”

For researchers like Cummings, the challenge of the multifactorial salmonella problem is best addressed using a collaborative One Health approach. The One Health concept is based on the inextricable link between animal, human, and environmental health. Because salmonella affects animals and humans and is persistent in the environment, a team representing different viewpoints is needed. “Collaborative approaches allow us to address problems through multiple perspectives,” Cummings said. “With salmonella, for example, we have microbiologists studying the organism itself, clinicians treating individual patients, and epidemiologists looking at the level of disease and associated risk factors at the population level. This multidisciplinary plan of attack maximizes our chances of discovering new methods to control the pathogen. The combining of disciplines to solve tricky problems is one of the most exciting parts of academia.”

Cummings regularly collaborates with faculty across departments at Texas A&M, faculty at other universities, colleagues at state and federal government agencies, and colleagues in industry. His multidisciplinary approach can be seen in his own lab, as exemplified by Dr. Lorraine Rodriguez-Rivera, a postdoctoral research associate in the Cummings lab. Rodriguez-Rivera has expertise in the microbiology of salmonella and other bacterial pathogens. “We have unique perspectives and areas of expertise, thus allowing a synergistic approach when investigating salmonella and other foodborne disease agents,” Cummings said.

Several research projects are ongoing in the Cummings lab. One of his main research aims is to determine the role of various wildlife species as reservoirs of salmonella and other pathogens. Thus, he is investigating the role of feral pigs in the epidemiology of salmonella and three additional zoonotic agents. “Feral pigs are an emerging One Health threat,” Cummings said. “They are one of the most abundant free-roaming ungulates in the United States, with a population that might be as high as 8 million. Feral pigs invade and contaminate crop fields, they contaminate surface waters, and they serve as a potential source of pathogen transmission to livestock. All of these things pose a risk to food safety.”

Powerful Collaboration Salmonella ResearchersCummings is also interested in the role that livestock play in the ecology and transmission of salmonella. Currently he is using genomic techniques to study an emerging strain of salmonella among dairy cattle. This project, in collaboration with investigators at Cornell University, is an extension of work that he did as a Ph.D. student. “The sharp rise in isolation of this strain from sick dairy cattle presents a very unique opportunity to investigate pathogen emergence in real time,” Cummings said.

Another primary objective of the Cummings lab is to tackle the issue of antimicrobial resistance among salmonella and other foodborne pathogens. Antimicrobial resistance limits treatment options for veterinary patients, and it represents a threat to public health. “The antimicrobial resistance issue is inherently complex with a lot of moving parts, to say the least,” Cummings said. “We are now studying antimicrobial resistance trends within a variety of host species, and this work opens new doors in terms of focusing new research questions. We’re also investigating the role of environmental reservoirs in promoting the emergence and persistence of antimicrobial-resistant salmonella on dairy operations.”

Both a veterinarian and an epidemiologist, Cummings has studied salmonella from both the clinical and the research side. “Having been in practice, I have a perspective of knowing what the big problems are, as well as what solutions would be practical,” Cummings said. “This helped me immensely when I began my research career, in terms of framing my research questions.” Being a clinician also helped Cummings see the effect of salmonellosis firsthand in his patients. “Besides being a major threat to public health, salmonella is an important cause of disease in many of our veterinary patients, such as cattle, horses, and pigs,” Cummings said. “So, when progress is made against a pathogen like salmonella, we all win. It doesn’t get any better than that.”