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.”

A Grand Challenge: One Health research proposals funded

The One Health Initiative was formally started at Texas A&M University in 2011 to be a collaborative effort of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally to attain sustainable optimal health. The initiative is dedicated to the discovery, development, communication, and application of knowledge in a wide range of academic and professional fields, providing the highest quality undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs to prepare students to assume roles in leadership, responsibility, and service to society. It builds on the strength of the university and the state of Texas from discovery to application and commercialization allowing for the discovery, learning, and applied research to meet societal needs.

BugThe One Health Grand Challenge increases opportunities for Texas A&M faculty members to plan and implement multidisciplinary, collaborative approaches improving the lives of all species-human and animal-by addressing health as well as the connections between health and both natural and manmade environments.

The One Health Campus Council, made up of faculty representatives from all colleges across campus, identified four major One Health research themes-Global Health & Security, Accessible & Affordable Quality Healthcare, Safe & Available Food and Water, and Chronic Diseases & Conditions-and implemented a plan to bring together teams to propose research initiatives under these themes.

“These proposals represent well what the One Health Grand Challenge at Texas A&M is all about,” said Dr. Eleanor M. Green, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “Facilitated by Dr. Michael Chaddock, assistant dean for One Health, investigators came together from across campus to form research teams dedicated to finding extraordinary solutions for diseases of importance to Texas and beyond. Equally impressive is the funding of this project, which was also a team approach. Dr. Glen Laine, vice president for research at Texas A&M, matched voluntary contributions from the involved colleges to fully fund this research challenge proposal.”

Global Health & Security

Dr. Sarah Hamer - One HealthA Texas A&M team of researchers plans to approach research on Chagas disease from an ecological perspective. They will look at how environmental factors, such as climate and land cover, and socioeconomic factors, such as housing conditions, affect the distribution of the disease. As the disease is transmitted primarily by insects called kissing bugs, any factor that influences kissing bug abundance or behavior will also impact disease risk. For example, poor housing conditions allow kissing bugs to colonize the home and increase the opportunity for them to take a blood meal from a sleeping human. Furthermore, as the climate changes, the distribution of the kissing bugs can shift, which could lead to the emergence of Chagas disease in new areas of the United States.

Chagas disease, which affects approximately eight million people in the Americas, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi and is spread by kissing bugs, which are prevalent across North, Central, and South America. Although once thought to be only a tropical disease, there is a current problem of canine Chagas disease in many regions of Texas that affects working dogs, such as military or border patrol, prized purebred breeding and show dogs, household pets, and stray dogs. In addition to the humans and dogs affected, the disease has been reported in South America in both cattle and pigs, and thus has the potential to threaten the economic stability of those who rely on livestock. Between 30 and 40 percent of those infected will develop life-threatening heart disease.

In addition to the cardiac complications, humans can also experience intestinal complications and even-especially in young children – meningoencephalitis, which is a life-threatening inflammation of the brain.

The team’s research proposal is a collaboration of faculty members in six Texas A&M colleges (the colleges of Agriculture & Life Sciences, Architecture, Geosciences, Science, and Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, as well as the School of Public Health). Together, they have expertise in ecology, epidemiology, population genetics, parasitology, community health, border health, medical anthropology, medical and veterinary entomology, land and economic development and planning, Latin American studies, and spatial analysis.

“Zoonotic diseases are the ultimate One Health challenge because of the complex interactions among humans, wildlife, domestic animals, vectors, and pathogens within shared environments,” said Dr. Sarah Hamer, an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) and the principal investigator on the project. “We plan for our research and outreach on Chagas disease to serve as ‘proof of principle,’ and that our One Health approach will be extended to tackle other vector-borne zoonotic disease systems in the future. We are in a great place for Texas A&M University to be a leader in multidisciplinary vector-borne disease research.”

The team plans a three-pronged approach to their research in South Texas. First, they will trap kissing bugs; collect wildlife, domestic animal, and human blood samples; and assess the socioeconomic environment. Then, they will process samples in the laboratory to sequence DNA and determine the population genetics of both the parasites and the kissing bugs that transmit them. Finally, they will use that information to map the disease over time and space, taking into account the relationships between environmental, climatic, and demographic factors that influence spread and severity of disease. This map will then serve as a basis for future research, as it can help identify risk factors and evaluate intervention strategies.

Although there is a recent increase in awareness of Chagas disease in Texas, researchers believe Chagas disease has existed in the Southern United States for a long time. In fact, mummified remains of humans from Texas and South America who died more than 1,150 years ago have evidence of Chagas disease.

“This devastating disease is one of several neglected tropical diseases that can increase the poverty in already disadvantaged regions, as it can have impacts on child development and worker productivity,” said Chaddock. “As an under-diagnosed, under-reported disease with poorly understood risk factors, this type of research is desperately needed.”

Accessible & Affordable Quality Healthcare

Dr. Arum Han - One HealthA research initiative led by Dr. Arum Han from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has faculty from the CVM, Dwight Look College of Engineering, Texas A&M Health Science Center, and Texas A&M Agri-Life. The title of their initiative is “Miniature Tissues and Organs for Detection and Prevention of Diseases,” which focuses on development of next-generation biologics through microphysiological systems.

“I believe that multidisciplinary collaboration is key in addressing challenges in this new One Health paradigm,” said Han, “and I hope that engineering technologies can make significant contributions towards solving these grand challenges of societal importance.”

The vision of this Microphysiological Systems Initiative is to create a world where human, animal, and plant diseases can be readily detected, disease mechanisms can be accurately and quickly deciphered, emerging threats can be predicted, and new therapeutics and vaccines can be rapidly developed, all at low cost, thus ultimately providing accessible and affordable healthcare.

“We have a tremendous amount of expertise and human capital at Texas A&M, and we are ideally suited to address many of society’s greatest health challenges,” said Dr. M. Katherine Banks, vice chancellor and dean of engineering. “Innovation thrives when we bring great scholars together, and it is exciting to imagine the possible advances that will come from their multidisciplinary approach to problem solving.”

The technological innovations at the core of this initiative are in developing in-vitro microsystems that closely mimic the physiology of whole organisms, and in developing lab-on-a-chip systems that are high throughput, accurate, flexible, and low cost. Systems that mimic (or reproduce) human physiological systems (for example, organ-on-a-chip) aim to overcome the limitations of currently used in-vitro models and animal models. Lab-on-a-chip systems can accelerate assays and significantly lower costs. Combined together, the team is hoping to provide a new paradigm for improving our capabilities to provide accessible and affordable healthcare. The initial focus areas of this initiative will be neurodegenerative diseases, immune systems, and the human microbiome; however, the team is hoping that the developed systems and their applications can be more broadly expanded and adapted to solving other health problems of high societal importance.

“The proposal submitted by Dr. Han and his team of investigators holds great promise in radically changing how we examine organ systems and perform diagnostics in multiple species,” Chaddock said. “Interdisciplinary approaches such as this-that advance knowledge, that will improve global health-are at the very core of the definition of One Health.”

Safe & Available Food and Water

Dr. Suresh Pillai - One HealthAs an established leader in electron beam technology, Dr. Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research within the Texas A&M College of Agriculture & Life Sciences (COALS) Department of Poultry Science, along with an interdisciplinary team of investigators from eight Texas A&M colleges as well as Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, the Texas A&M University System Office of Technology Commercialization, the Texas A&M Institute of Biosciences and Technology, the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing (NCTM), the Texas A&M Institute for Genomic Medicine, and the Texas A&M Institute for Preclinical Studies, were recently awarded funding to pursue novel applications for this innovative technology as it applies to ensuring safe and available food and water.

“The faculty in our college are well positioned to facilitate progress at Texas A&M in this area,” said Dr. Bill Dugas, acting vice chancellor for agriculture and life sciences and COALS acting dean.

The focus of this initiative is to develop novel uses for the one-of-a-kind electron beam technology aimed at eradicating water-borne, food-borne, and feed-borne infectious diseases in humans and animals through developing new vaccines and other therapeutics; ensuring global food supply security through new packaging, treatment, and processing methods; and exploring the use of this technology in improving food and water quality.

“This technology uses commercial electricity, which is transformed by stripping off electrons,” explained Pillai. “What makes it a truly paradigm-shifting technology is that it creates both reduction and oxidation processes simultaneously without the addition of chemicals. The frequency levels of electron beam are adjustable, which allows us to use it at the lower end for killing insects and pests, at the mid range for treating food and water for dangerous pathogens, and then at the higher end to create memory shape plastics that may be used in medical applications.”

The proposed project in electron beam technology leverages Texas A&M’s unequaled strength characterized by the combination of technological capabilities and expertise. This unique collaborative effort will initiate strategic partnerships between academia, private industry, non-governmental organizations, entrepreneurs, global financing institutions, eBeam equipment suppliers, and national and international regulatory agencies that will take advantage of the technological potential of this platform in healing, cleaning, feeding, and shaping this world in ways not seen before.

“The proposal submitted by Dr. Pillai and this team of investigators holds great promise in creating the next generation of killed vaccines, developing new methods for cleaning the environment and improving the sustainability of our natural resources, and protecting the global food supply from massive loss,” said Chaddock.

Chronic Diseases & Conditions

Dr. Tom Welsh - One HealthEnhancing the health and well-being of animals and humans through the alleviation of chronic illnesses and conditions is the goal of an innovative project recently awarded funding through the competitive One Health Grand Challenge proposal process. The project’s team will approach this objective by addressing the adverse physical, societal, and economic effects of stressful chronic conditions, including metabolic dysregulation and obesity.

The interdisciplinary team includes faculty from seven Texas A&M colleges (COALS, the CVM, and the colleges of Education and Human Development, Engineering, Liberal Arts, Medicine, and Pharmacy) as well as Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

“The faculty in our college have the training, skills, and abilities to integrate the environment, animal, and human aspects of a problem to solve the complex but very important grand challenges facing our society, such as improving our health,” said Dugas.

The focus of this initiative is to further develop the understanding of genetic and environmental factors, including stress, that can disrupt metabolic functions in humans and animals, which may lead to a variety of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes, and a reduction in productivity.

“There are numerous undesirable conditions that can arise when an animal or person cannot maintain a healthy balance,” said Dr. Tom Welsh, the project’s primary investigator and a professor in COALS with a joint appointment at the CVM. “Our approach includes four separate projects, each of which will investigate environmental and genetic factors influencing the regulation of metabolic health. By learning how to manage these factors, we will be able to reduce susceptibility to chronic disease in humans and animals and also reduce stress on animals that affects their productivity.”

Two pilot projects will focus on behavior and stress related to metabolism. These will include the investigation of prenatal stress on calves and, separately, will examine epigenetic changes in human patients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Two additional projects include work to determine environmental factors that influence metabolism, as well as the role that microbes in the body (or the microbiome) play in metabolic regulation.

“The proposal submitted by Dr. Welsh and this team of investigators holds great promise in creating new understanding of the relationship between the environment, genetics, stress, and the cascade of chronic diseases that result from stress on the metabolic system,” Chaddock said.

More information about these proposals, including videos about each, may be found online at

Love to the Max: Texas A&M veterinarians help a family through the pain of canine cancer

Bhatia Family

Upon entering the Bhatia home in Houston, it’s apparent that the family dog, Maxamillion, is as much a thread in the fabric of the household as his human counterparts.

With an energetic tail and a doggy smile, Max is the first to greet any guest. In nearly every framed photo in the home, he poses for the camera. And, as his mom Gina Bhatia will tell you, it is required that Max go on almost all family vacations within driving distance. For the past eight years, Max has been part of the family, beginning on the day Gina Bhatia and her husband, Devinder, bid on the black Labrador puppy at a school charity auction.

“My husband kept on bidding until he was ours. I was dressed in a ball gown, and they handed over this precious pooch,” she laughed. “We had a new baby, a toddler, a freshman in high school, and our house was under renovations. I looked at my husband like, ‘What did we just do?'”

The Bhatias didn’t question their decision long. Max took hold of their hearts almost instantly.

Love to the MaxWhen Max was five years old, his health took a sudden turn. During a family vacation, one that Max didn’t go on, Bhatia received a call from the boarder. “They said that Max was not himself at all, that he had started limping and was acting lethargic,” Bhatia explained. So she ended the trip early and headed home in order to take Max to his local veterinarian, Dr. Alice Anne Dodge, in Houston. While there, she found out that Max was suffering from an autoimmune disease and polyarthritis. After weeks of tests and different medications, he was not getting any better. At that point, his veterinarian recommended that he be taken to the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at Texas A&M University.

“He had tons of blood tests, scans, X-rays-you name it, they did it,” said Bhatia. “He wasn’t walking, and his platelet levels dropped dangerously low.”

The Texas A&M veterinarians figured out the plan of attack, giving Max a round of chemotherapy and a litany of other medications. Over the next six months, many visits to Texas A&M, and seven different medicines, Max’s condition improved tremendously. The Bhatias were overjoyed.

A dreaded diagnosis

For years, Max showed no sign of his previous illness. Although his energy never returned to its original puppy-like volume, Max was back to being Max.

Then, last April, Bhatia noticed Max limping. She returned to Dr. Dodge, where she left him to undergo a series of tests. For the entire day, Bhatia waited by the phone, nervous about the news she would receive. When she finally got the call at the end of the day to come pick up Max, she knew the news wasn’t good. “When I went in, I was sitting in the exam room with Max, and the doctor came in and said, ‘I hope I’m wrong, but I think he has osteosarcoma.'”

With the overwhelming news of cancer, Bhatia left Dodge’s office heartbroken, afraid her days with her beloved pet were numbered.

After consulting with her husband, a heart surgeon, Bhatia knew that the best course of action would once again involve Texas A&M. She drove Max back to College Station two days later, where Dr. Claudia Barton and the rest of the oncology team did more testing and a biopsy to confirm an aggressive form of cancer called osteosarcoma. Dr. Rita Ho, Dr. Megan Sutton, Dr. Kelly Theiman Mankin, and Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles, together with Barton, gave her several treatment options. One option was to amputate Max’s front left leg and administer six rounds of chemotherapy, and another treatment option would allow him to keep his leg and undergo radiation. The former option meant drastic changes for Max’s future but a longer life, while the latter option was less invasive but wouldn’t completely eliminate his pain.

“It took me a good week to figure out what to do,” Bhatia said. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. In my mind, the thought of amputation was such an aggressive approach. The thing that kept me going was that they do this surgery a lot, that it’s fairly common with big dogs. Plus, the veterinarians assured me that Max has such a great spirit, they knew that he would do fantastic. Once I discussed it again with my husband and children, we knew he was going to be a survivor.”

Love to the MaxWith encouragement from the veterinarians at Texas A&M, Bhatia made peace with her decision to move forward with the amputation. They were careful to explain every scenario to Bhatia-“the good, the bad, and the ugly.” She felt that all of the veterinarians and students formed a bond with Max that assured her he was in good hands.

“Before I got him home, on the night of his surgery, they called me, and I was just blown away. They told me he was doing great and that he was already walking!”

Within two weeks, Max had completely adapted to his new body. Bhatia’s children, Mia and Drake, were able to play with their dog in the backyard, just like old times.

“Max is just the best gift from God. He gives us so much,” Bhatia said. “If you have a sick pet and are considering the veterinarian school at Texas A&M, don’t think twice about it. Get in your car and go right now. They are the best, and I’m forever grateful.”

Editor’s note: As this issue was going to print, Max lost his battle with cancer. However, the Bhatia family is still very grateful for the extra time they were able to spend with their beloved dog.

Texas A&M Professor Reveals Evolution Of Darwin’s Finches Through Genome Sequencing

Darwin’s finches, inhabiting the Galápagos archipelago and Cocos Island, constitute an iconic model for studies of speciation and adaptive evolution. An international team of scientists, led by Dr. Leif Andersson of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and Uppsala University in Sweden, has now shed light on the evolutionary history of these birds and identified a gene that explains variation in beak shape within and among species. The study is published today in Nature, on the day before the 206th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.

Andersson is a Texas A&M University Institute for Advanced Study Faculty Fellow-one of the nationally and internationally renowned scholars invited by the Institute to come to the campus for extended stays to teach, conduct research and interact with Texas A&M students and faculty.

The finches on the Galápagos Islands were a major influence on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. The birds’ common ancestor arrived on the Galápagos about 2 million years ago, and since that time the finches have evolved into 15 recognized species differing in body size, beak shape, song and feeding behavior. Changes in the size and form of the beak have enabled different species to utilize different food resources such as insects, seeds and nectar from cactus flowers, as well as blood from iguanas.

“We have now sequenced 120 birds including all known species of Darwin’s finches, as well as two closely related species in order to study their evolutionary history,” said Sangeet Lamichhaney, a Ph.D. student at Uppsala University and shared first author on the paper.

“Multiple individuals of each species were analyzed and for some species birds from up to six different islands were sampled to study variation within and between islands.”

This detailed genetic analysis has allowed the researchers to propose that the 15 recognized species should actually be reclassified to 18. Other insight from the current study was that gene flow between species has played a prominent role throughout the evolutionary history of Darwin’s finches. The scientists could trace clear signs of hybridization between a warbler finch and the common ancestor of tree and ground finches that must have occurred about a million years ago.

“During our field work on the Galápagos we have observed many examples of hybridization between species of Darwin’s finches but the long-term evolutionary effects of these hybridizations have been unknown,” said Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University, who are the world’s experts on the biology of Darwin’s finches after working on the Galápagos for 40 years.

“Now we can safely conclude that interspecies hybridization has played a critical role in the evolution of the finches and has contributed to maintaining their genetic diversity,” Peter Grant continued.

The most striking phenotypic diversity among Darwin’s finches is the variation in the size and shape of the beaks. Charles Darwin was struck by this biological diversity, and compared it with the variety he was accustomed to among European birds such as the hawfinch, the chaffinch and warblers, as documented in his book “The Voyage of The Beagle.” The team investigated the genetic basis for variation in beak shape by comparing two species with blunt beaks and two species with pointed beaks. Fifteen regions of the genome stood out as being very different in this contrast, and as many as six of these contained genes that previously have been associated with craniofacial and/or beak development. One of those genes, called ALX1, was shown to be especially important. The variant of the gene each bird had was strongly correlated with the shape of the bird’s beak.

“The most thrilling and significant finding was that genetic variation in the ALX1 gene is associated with variation in beak shape not only between species of Darwin’s finches but also among individuals of one of them, the medium ground finch,” Andersson said.

The ALX1 gene codes for a transcription factor (a type of protein) that has crucial role for normal craniofacial development in vertebrates, including humans. Genetic mutations that inactivate ALX1 are known to cause severe birth defects, including frontonasal dysplasia, in people.

“This is a very exciting discovery for us since we have previously shown that beak shape in the medium ground finch has undergone a rapid evolution in response to environmental changes,” Rosemary Grant said. “Now we know that hybridization mixes the different variants of an important gene, ALX1.”

The ALX1 variants present in the finches have mild effects on ALX1 function, not the sort of devastating effect mutations that cause human disorders. The ALX1 polymorphism in finches is adaptive for the birds, as it has contributed to diversification of beak shapes among Darwin’s finches and, thereby, to an expanded utilization of food resources on the Galápagos.

“This is an interesting example where mild mutations in a gene that is critical for normal development leads to phenotypic evolution,” Andersson said. “I would not be surprised if it turns out that mutations with minor or minute effects on ALX1 function or expression contribute to the bewildering facial diversity among humans.”

About the Texas A&M University Institute for Advanced Study

The Texas A&M University Institute for Advanced Study provides a catalyst to enrich the intellectual climate and educational experiences at Texas A&M.; The Institute was established in December 2010 by The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents to build on the growing academic reputation of Texas A&M and to provide a framework to attract top scholars from throughout the nation and abroad for appointments of up to a year. The Institute is an outgrowth of the University’s Academic Master Plan and is a permanent structural mechanism for attracting world-class talent to the University.  The selection of Fellows initiates with faculty nominations of National Academy and Nobel-prize caliber scholars that align with existing strengths and ambitions of the University. The wide-ranging areas of advanced studies in the Institute include, but are not limited to: architecture; arts, humanities, and social sciences; business; education; engineering; physical, geophysical, agricultural, and life sciences; public and foreign policy; and multiple disciplines. To learn more, visit

Texans help researchers map Lyme disease in Texas

In recent years increasing numbers of Lyme disease cases have been reported in Texas, a state that was once considered free of the disease, and researchers at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) have turned to the public for help. Dr. Maria D. Esteve-Gassent, an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB) at the CVM, and her lab seek ticks that Texans have found on either themselves or their pets. The researchers then test the ticks for bacteria, including those that cause Lyme disease.

lyme-diseaseLyme disease is a zoonotic, tick-borne illness caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Each year, approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Dogs, cats, horses, and cattle-in addition to humans-can all develop Lyme disease. Infected tick vectors transmit the bacteria while biting humans and susceptible domestic animal species. Although Lyme disease is effectively treated with antibiotics when diagnosed early, often people are found to have the disease only after numerous tests. Therefore, Esteve-Gassent encourages the public to send her any ticks they find. “We want to tell everyone who finds a tick to send it to us, don’t squish it or flush it,” said Esteve-Gassent. “We will be able to tell you if it is positive for the bacteria-which can help people have an early warning that they might have the disease-and for us it provides invaluable information about where and when people get in contact with these ticks, as well as which species of tick they are.”

Esteve-Gassent and her team use polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methods to find the bacteria’s DNA within each tick, thus giving them molecular evidence of the pathogens’ presence. In addition to Lyme disease, her lab also studies other diseases spread by ticks:

Tick-borne relapsing fever (TBRF) is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected soft ticks, which can be very difficult to find because they don’t attach to skin for more than a few seconds. Therefore, many people who are infected don’t have any known history of a tick bite.

Anaplasmosis is transmitted to humans by tick bites primarily from the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) in the northeastern and upper midwestern United States and the western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus) along the Pacific coast. Although this disease-which can affect humans and dogs-is rarely seen in Texas, a closely related disease that affects cattle is present in the state.

Texans help researchers map Lyme disease in TexasEhrlichiosis is transmitted to humans by the lone star tick (Ambylomma americanum), which is found primarily in the southcentral and eastern United States.

One of the biggest goals of the project is to create an accurate map of where in Texas these different species of ticks are found. “When I first started the research, I was staring at a map of Texas, as I wasn’t sure where to even begin,” Esteve-Gassent said. “The trouble is that when you look at where most of the cases of Lyme disease are recorded, you have clusters around the major cities, but that doesn’t tell us much about where these people were infected. Most of the ticks are probably not going to be in developed urban areas.”

The number of ticks in the environment changes from year to year, which makes such mapping efforts even more difficult. Variation depends strongly on rainfall, and more rain means more ticks. “The ticks are very sensitive to humidity,” said Esteve-Gassent. “The burst of ticks that people notice in years of heavier rainfall is normal.”

To surmount some of these difficulties, the team has developed partnerships with Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (TVMDL), USDA-ARS, the Brazos Valley Animal Shelter, hunters, the CVM parasitology lab, Lyme disease support groups in Houston and Austin, and local veterinarians.

With the help of the public and their partners, the researchers are collecting a number of ticks. Texas Parks and Wildlife and private hunters help to collect ticks from deer, feral swine, and any other wild animals. The TVMDL, local shelters, and veterinarians submit ticks found on pets and other domestic animals. Lyme disease support groups and others in the public help spread the word about submitting ticks people find on themselves.

Although these passive surveillance methods aren’t a perfect sampling, once they know where to look, the researchers can go out into the field and take samples the traditional way.

“We have to depend on the public to help us with this research,” Esteve-Gassent said. “But they’ve been wonderful. The project started off slowly, but now we usually get at least one or two ticks a day.”

If you find a tick on you or your pet anywhere in Texas, please send it to Esteve-Gassent at 4467 TAMU, College Station, Texas, 77843. The ticks should be sealed in a plastic bag with a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol. Please include the location (city or zip code) where the tick was found, the location on the body, and contact information so the researchers can send you the results.

Collaboration, Innovation Key to Team’s Success

Guidewire Group
College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) Guidewire Group

The Guidewire Group doesn’t believe in hopeless cases. Made up of practitioners from across the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) to evaluate rapidly evolving medical techniques and to collaborate on challenging veterinary cases, the group harnesses the diverse skills of its members to develop and provide new treatments for animals that might appear to be out of options.

College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) Guidewire Group

Formed in 2014, the group has members that include cardiologists, surgeons, criticalists, and internists. Their focus is on improving animal care through creativity, innovation, and-most of all-collaboration.

“It’s an incredibly collaborative process, because it pulls skills from different specialties in this really integrated system,” said one of the team’s founders, Dr. Audrey Cook, internist and associate professor at the CVM. “We’ve got great facilities here and a great team, but this is the first time that we’ve sat down and thought, ‘Let’s actually get a formal group of people from different fields and with different areas of expertise to work together on challenging patient problems and be really integrated.'” This culture of collaboration is not only embraced for practitioners in the immediate area but also extends to veterinarians at training facilities or practicing in other states.

The mission

The practice of veterinary medicine evolves rapidly, and the Guidewire Group aims to be at the forefront of effective treatments for patients with seemingly little chance of survival and to lead the way in innovative animal care by providing help, hope, and a better quality of life.

The group is offering solutions for kidney, bladder, liver, heart, and airway problems that were unmanageable as recently as 10 years ago. These new treatments can often make a huge difference, such as sparing the kidney in patients for which the only other option would have been removal of the organ.

Many of the patients the Guidewire Group sees have been diagnosed with cancer. Cook points to the example of dogs with transitional cell carcinoma of the urinary bladder, which often makes the animal unable to urinate. The Guidewire Group works together to insert a small device called a stent into a dog’s urethra to open a way for the urine to escape.

“In the old days, we used to place tubes through the body wall into their bladders, and it was just awful,” Cook remembered. “Now, we put in these little tiny devices that hold the urinary tract open. The dogs go home, and they can enjoy months of comfortable time that would otherwise not have been possible.”

The work of the Guidewire Group is not just about treating cancer patients. They offer many new approaches for a variety of serious problems, such as a disease causing blood loss from the kidneys. In the past, veterinarians would have removed the kidney to stop the bleeding. However, for dogs with bleeding from both kidneys, removal is not an option. The Guidewire Group now has a solution.

One day a young dog suffering from an invariably terminal kidney disease arrived at the hospital, and the Guidewire Group spent months developing a new approach to his treatment. “We tried this really novel procedure on the dog, where we placed catheters in and cauterized the kidneys. Six weeks later, he was completely cured,” Cook said. “A three-year-old dog, given back his life. We were overjoyed with the results. He had a condition that was an absolute death sentence even four or five years ago. To have that kind of success is really, really exciting.”

An all-star team

After graduating with distinction from the Royal School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1989, Cook held an internship in Small Animal Medicine and Surgery at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She then spent three years at the University of California at Davis College of Veterinary Medicine as a resident in small animal internal medicine.

In 1994 she became a diplomate in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, and in 1996 she was named a diplomate in the European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. She spent 10 years in private practice in Newport News, Virginia, before joining the faculty at Texas A&M.

The Guidewire Group’s all-star lineup is key to its success. Among them, the team has well over 100 years of experience in specialty veterinary care.

Aside from Cook, other members of the core team include Dr. James Barr (criticalist), Dr. Jacqueline Davidson (surgeon), Dr. Sonya Gordon (cardiologist), Dr. Jonathan Lidbury (internist), Dr. Kelly Thieman Mankin (surgeon), Dr. David Nelson (emergency room doctor and surgeon), Dr. Medora Pashmakova (criticalist), and Dr. Ashley Saunders (cardiologist).

Drawing on other medical fields

Cook said most of the group’s cutting-edge treatments actually had their start in human medicine. The techniques have to be scaled down, but they are based on philosophies developed in the human medical field.

“Typically, people thought in terms of trying something first on an animal; if it works, you can use it on a person,” Cook said. “Here, we’re looking at human medicine success stories and using the same techniques on our animals. It’s tough. Things have to be scaled down and resized. In these cases, the human is the metaphorical guinea pig.”

The team tweaks many procedures to fit patient needs by integrating its combined knowledge based on a “huge foundation” of medical research and practice already underway. For instance, Texas A&M’s cardiology team is known around the world for inventing devices and developing new procedures, and the Guidewire Group often uses these innovative cardiac approaches to creatively treat non-cardiac organs. The Guidewire Group’s cardiologists, Drs. Gordon and Saunders, have been invaluable in bringing that knowledge to the table. Even though a patient might have a liver or urinary tract problem, some of the techniques of interventional cardiology can apply to the treatment. “It is a question of pulling skills from other areas,” Cook said.

Some members of the group have worked with other leading veterinary medicine teams in their application of human medical methods to animals. A successful group in northeastern New York has been a pioneer in this practice, according to Cook. “They trained with human teams and then brought these methods to the veterinary world,” Cook said, adding that members of pioneering teams or their protégés have trained her and most of her team members in these techniques.

Dr. Jordan Vitt examines an echocardiogram after Newfoundland Rachel's surgery.

Spreading the word

Rachel's Echo
Dr. Jordan Vitt examines an echocardiogram after Newfoundland Rachel’s surgery.

The team is eagerly working to spread the word about its research and welcomes emails, calls, and visits from veterinarians with questions about unusual or difficult cases.

“That way, we can at least say, ‘Yes, we do this,’ or ‘No, we don’t, but we can make some calls and find out if anyone else can,'” Cook said.

Cook said it’s always heartbreaking to learn about situations in which veterinarians were unaware of new treatment options for their patients and tried other treatments that are less successful-or worse, told their clients that nothing could be done. Getting the word out on new procedures is something about which the Guidewire Group is passionate. It’s been looking for ways to bring awareness of its new treatments.

“I’ll bump into veterinarians and they’ll say, ‘I heard you did something cool on somebody else’s patient,'” Cook said. “They’ll say, ‘I had a dog like that six months ago. I didn’t even think to call.'”

As veterinary treatments evolve rapidly, veterinarians-even recent graduates-need to be aware that techniques may be available that weren’t around when they were in school. “What we couldn’t do even five years ago, we can do today,” Cook said. “Even if you’ve never heard of it or ever seen it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible.”

Cook said she hopes that all veterinarians will think that “nothing can be done” less often, even when that may have previously been the case, as the Guidewire Group could hold the key to a cure.

“I hope they will say, ‘Let me call the Guidewire Group first,'” Cook said. “‘I want to make sure there’s not a method I’ve not heard of,’ before they say, ‘It’s hopeless. I’m sorry.’ I hope they will take two minutes to shoot us an email or pick up the phone and find out what options there might be.”

The Guidewire Group has a short slide presentation that its members are eager to present to as many practitioners as possible. “If I’m going somewhere to talk about endocrine disease, for example, and everyone is just digging into their chicken and coleslaw, I’ll say, ‘Just for six minutes, I’m going to tell you something really cool that we’re now able to do,'” Cook said.

If there are even a few veterinarians in a room for a continuing education event, for instance, Cook and her team members always speak to the coordinator and ask for five minutes. They show pictures of the procedures and before-and-after shots. “We’re trying to catch people when they’re in a chair and they can’t get away,” Cook said.

Ultimately, Cook and the rest of the team want veterinarians to know that advances in medicine are creating new options for patients that would have been considered hopeless in the past. “These techniques have solved problems,” Cook said. “We actually have solutions now for previously devastating diseases, and that is the best news for everyone.”

Reaching out:

To contact the Guidewire Group, send an email to or contact the Small Animal Hospital at (979) 845-2351.

Texas A&M Post-doctoral Researcher Recognized as a Leader in the Field of Toxicological Research

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The Society of Toxicology (SOT), the world’s largest and preeminent association representing the field of toxicology, recognized the field’s top researchers and scientists this week through the announcement of recipients of 2015 SOT Awards. The awards honor individuals who are advancing the field of toxicology. One of those honored is Dr. Fabian A. Grimm, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS) at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). He is being honored with the 2015 SOT Colgate-Palmolive Postdoctoral Fellowship Award in In Vitro Toxicology. This award, which includes a stipend and research-related costs of up to $44,000 for one year, is designed to help postdoctoral trainees advance the development of alternatives to animal testing in toxicological research.


Texas A&M Post-doctoral Researcher Recognized as a Leader in the Field of Toxicological Research
Dr. Fabian A. Grimm

“As toxicologists, we are always striving to find better, quicker, more accurate strategies for assessing chemical safety, which is why we are proud to support Dr. Fabian Grimm’s research in this field through the 2015 SOT Colgate-Palmolive Postdoctoral Fellowship Award in In Vitro Toxicology,” said Dr. Norbert E. Kaminski, SOT president 2014–2015. “Dr. Grimm’s proposal to evaluate the feasibility of using biological data-based evaluations to assess the toxic hazard of complex substances, such as petrochemicals, represents the type of work that can only make the field of toxicology stronger.”

The field of toxicology and toxicologists are responsible for aiding human, animal, and environmental health and safety through the study of the adverse effects of chemicals and other biological agents.

“The society is committed to discovering the best methods for evaluating the safety of diverse biological agents, which includes finding alternative methods to traditional animal testing,” Kaminski continued. “With the generous support of Colgate-Palmolive, SOT is able to support research into alternative testing methods through a number of grants and awards each year, and this year’s award recipients have proposed projects that will hopefully further the efficiency and effectiveness of these tests.”

Colgate-Palmolive has been supporting SOT Awards dedicated to the development of alternative testing methods that reduce, replace, or refine the use of animals in toxicological research since 1988.

“Dr. Grimm is a remarkably talented young investigator who joined Dr. Ivan Rusyn’s laboratory this past summer,” said Dr. Evelyn Tiffany-Castiglioni, department head of VIBS. “We are very proud of him for this recognition. He brings a powerful set of complementary skills to his studies, which integrate molecular biology, cell imaging, protein characterization, and quantitative analysis. The award provided by SOT will help Dr. Grimm pursue his innovative approaches to better understand the effects of chemical hazards on health.”

“It is rare that students or postdocs try to move beyond the simple exercise of developing a model, or collecting new information,” said Dr. Ivan Rusyn, SOT Councilor 2012–2015 and professor at the CVM. “I am most excited about his true determination to implement change, to interact with the industry and regulators, and to find meaningful solutions that can be readily implemented tomorrow, rather than in 10 years.”

“I am truly grateful for the opportunity to be part of a highly collaborative project that will potentially advance non-animal based predictive toxicity assessments in both industry and academia,” said Grimm. “Being supported by the Society of Toxicology and through the 2015 Colgate-Palmolive Postdoctoral Fellowship Award is not just an affirmation of the quality of our research but is also a great honor for me as an aspiring toxicologist.”

All 2015 SOT Award recipients will be honored at the Society’s 54th Annual Meeting & ToxExpo in San Diego, California, from March 22–26, 2015.

About SOT Awards & Honors

The Society of Toxicology (SOT) Awards program recognizes and assists distinguished toxicologists and students each year based on merit – if a worthy recipient is not identified for a given award in a year, the prize will not be awarded that year. In 1962, the Society inducted its first honorary members, establishing its honors program. In 1965, the SOT Awards program was created with the establishment of two awards, the SOT Merit Award and the SOT Achievement Award, to support “the furtherance of the science of toxicology.” Today, the Society presents more than 20 awards that recognize achievement, facilitate travel for senior and budding scientists, and further toxicological research. The SOT Awards program supports the Society’s mission to create a safer and healthier world by advancing the science of toxicology.

About SOT and Animal Testing

In 1986, the Society of Toxicology adopted a position statement regarding the use of animals in toxicology. It stated the Society’s commitment to the responsible use of laboratory animals in toxicological research and testing; the development and use of alternatives to the use of animals; the use of research designs that employ less painful or stressful procedures and improve animal care; and the reduction in the number of animals used for research and testing when scientifically appropriate and valid. In 1989, the Society of Toxicology furthered its commitment to the responsible use of animals in research by adopting a set of guiding principles for the use of animals in toxicology.

About SOT

Founded in 1961, the Society of Toxicology (SOT) is a professional and scholarly organization of more than 7,800 scientists from academic institutions, government, and industry representing the great variety of individuals who practice toxicology in the US and abroad. SOT is committed to creating a safer and healthier world by advancing the science of toxicology. The Society promotes the acquisition and utilization of knowledge in toxicology, aids in the protection of public health, and has a strong commitment to education in toxicology and to the recruitment of students and new members into the profession. For more information about SOT and toxicology, visit the Society online at, follow us on Twitter @SOToxicology, and like us on Facebook.

About the CVM

For nearly 100 years, the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences has been committed to improving animal, human, and environmental health through teaching, research, veterinary care, and outreach. For more information about the college, please visit our website at or join us on