CVM Faculty Members to Promote Canine Health with New Research Grants

Story by Megan Myers

Drs. Nick and Unity Jeffery, a husband-and-wife duo at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), have received canine health research grants from the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Health Foundation (CHF).

Dr. Unity Jeffery
Dr. Unity Jeffery

In celebration of its 25th anniversary, the AKC CHF awarded more than $2.1 million in 36 new canine health research grants in February. The selected projects were chosen based on their ability to meet the highest scientific standards and to have the greatest potential to advance the health of all dogs.

In her Dogs Helping Dogs Laboratory, Unity Jeffery, an assistant professor in the CVM’s Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB), will conduct research for her grant “Tumor-educated Platelets: A Minimally Invasive Liquid Biopsy for Early Cancer Diagnosis.”

Studies in human medicine have shown that RNA in blood platelets is a promising marker for various types of cancer.

Unity Jeffery’s study, in collaboration with Drs. Emma Warry, Jonathan Lidbury, and Chris Dolan, from the CVM’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS), will act as a proof of principle to determine if this information is translational into canine medicine.

If so, her research may be the first step in developing a blood-based screening test or liquid biopsy for canine cancer.

“One of the big problems with cancer in dogs is that because dogs can’t talk, they can’t let us know when they’re starting to feel just a little bit unwell or show very mild symptoms,” she said. “That means that we often don’t diagnose cancer in dogs until very late, when the cancer’s already widespread throughout the body.”

By using a test that can detect cancer earlier, veterinarians may be able to use more targeted treatment protocols that have reduced side effects.

“The hope of early diagnosis is that maybe that’s your chance to fully eliminate the cancer rather than just prolong life,” she said.

Dr. Nick Jeffery
Dr. Nick Jeffery

Meanwhile, CVM professor and neurologist Nick Jeffery will be working to extend results from a previous research project for his grant “Clinical Trial of Prevotella histicola Supplementation to Ameliorate Meningoencephalomyelitis of Unknown Origin (MUO).”

In a previous project, Nick Jeffery found that dogs with MUO, a disease of the central nervous system that resembles multiple sclerosis in humans, have an unusual balance of bacteria in their guts. Particularly, one bacteria that is known for controlling inflammation was consistently at lower levels.

His project will focus on providing supplements of that reduced bacteria to dogs with MUO to hopefully improve the disease’s outcome.

“We’re going to culture the bacteria and then put them into capsules that dogs can take every day,” he said. “The idea is that it will help us get better control of the disease, which is quite serious and quite a lot of dogs will die of it. We’re hoping that by supplementing with this bacteria, we might improve their survival.”

In addition to improving the survival of dogs with MUO, the bacterial supplement could also provide a way to reduce the use of immunosuppressive drugs, improving the dogs’ overall health and wellbeing.

Similar to the translational aspect of Unity Jeffery’s project, Nick’s may also one day play a role in human medicine by suggesting a new treatment method for multiple sclerosis.

“I was very pleased to get the grant, especially since it was a follow up on a previous study,” he said. “It’s fantastic to try out bacterial supplementation. This sort of approach is pretty new in all medicine, so it’s a great opportunity to test the idea and also try to fix dogs that have got a very serious condition.”

“I’m very grateful to the AKC Canine Health Foundation and the owners and breeders who donate to the charity,” Unity Jeffery said. “My Dogs Helping Dogs Lab, where we use canine patients and healthy volunteers to try to better diagnose and treat common canine diseases, fits really nicely with the AKC’s mission to improve the health of both pedigree dogs and the whole canine population. It’s a charity that I feel very honored to be funded by and very grateful for their continuing support.

“Nick and I have pet dogs at home and we love our dogs; they’re our family,” she said. “For me, I feel that I do the same type of research for my patients as a human doctor would do for theirs, and that’s what’s great about working in a veterinary school and having the opportunity to obtain funding from sources like the AKC.”

About the AKC CHF

Since 1995, the AKC Canine Health Foundation has leveraged the power of science to address the health needs of all dogs. With more than $56 million in funding to date, the Foundation provides grants for the highest quality canine health research and shares information on the discoveries that help prevent, treat and cure canine diseases. The Foundation meets and exceeds industry standards for fiscal responsibility, as demonstrated by their highest four-star Charity Navigator rating and GuideStar Platinum Seal of Transparency. Learn more at www.akcchf.org.

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

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

A Canine Connection

Through her Dogs Helping Dogs laboratory, Dr. Unity Jeffery studies common canine diseases to improve veterinary care in the future.

Story by Dr. Ann Kellett

 

Dr. Unity Jeffery in her lab
Dr. Unity Jeffery

If you ask for Dr. Jeffery at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), you’ll need to be more specific. Dr. Nick Jeffery and Dr. Unity Jeffery are a husband-and-wife team who both devote their lives to advancing animal health care at the CVM.

An assistant professor of veterinary pathobiology, Unity Jeffery utilizes her Dogs Helping Dogs laboratory to better understand, diagnose, and treat common canine diseases.

She got the idea while earning her Ph.D. at Iowa State University.

“To get research funding, small animal veterinarians typically have to focus on problems that overlap with human medicine,” she said. “Dogs Helping Dogs focuses on problems that aren’t so interesting to funding agencies.”

TACKLING THE MOST IMPORTANT PROBLEMS 

At the moment, she’s working on some of the biggest problems a dog can have—heatstroke and a disease associated with it (and other conditions), called disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC).

Heatstroke can occur quickly and is deadly in the majority of cases. It is of particular concern for dogs with thick fur and short noses, as well as those that are obese or have other medical conditions.

DIC is less well known to most dog lovers and occurs when numerous small blood clots form throughout the body in conjunction with a severe illness such as cancer, sepsis, and liver or kidney disease.

About 150 dogs have provided blood for her studies so far. Healthy dogs, mostly the pets of staff and students at the CVM, provide control samples, and others come from dogs that have been treated at the Small Animal Hospital (SAH).

“The patients we work with today are teaching us how to improve future care,” Jeffery said. “I am very grateful for the generosity of the owners and pets who participate in our studies and the technicians, interns, residents, and clinicians who help make this possible.”

Gathering data in these kinds of clinical studies takes much longer than in traditional experimental research, but Jeffery says the enrollment target for two studies was reached in June.

“I’m really excited to see the final results,” she said. “With one study, we’re hoping to take a first step in developing new tests and therapies for dogs affected by heatstroke. The other looks at how different fluid therapies affect the health of blood vessels, which we hope will help us keep patients from developing DIC.”

Dr. Unity Jeffery working in her lab
Dr. Unity Jeffery

ASSESSING LABORATORY ACCURACY

Jeffery’s other main focus is to improve the accuracy of the tests given by veterinarians during an examination and the laboratory results of these tests.

“Laboratory and point-of-care analyzers can be marketed to veterinarians even though they may not consistently provide accurate results,” she said. “Laboratory accuracy is important to us because it is a major patient safety issue and we base so many of our diagnostic and treatment decisions on laboratory testing.”

Several projects are underway or recently completed. In one, she and CVM emergency and critical care team member Dr. Christine Rutter worked with a couple of point-of-care instrument manufacturers to assess the performance of their analyzers in clinical patients. In another, she and clinical pathology resident Carolina Azevedo looked at how high blood lipid concentrations interfere with lab testing.

“One of the projects that I’m most excited about is a study involving data from the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Project,” Jeffery said. “We’re using annual health check data from the dogs enrolled in this study to determine how much lab results vary in healthy dogs. The results will help us determine if changes detected at annual wellness checks are clinically important or just normal fluctuations.”

Jeffery expects some of these studies to have an immediate impact.

“I hope our fluid therapy study will help improve the standard of care of canine patients almost immediately after it is published,” she said. “Others, like the heatstroke study, are chipping away at a really big problem. It will probably be a few years before it pays off, but without these initial studies we’ll never improve survival for these patients.”

Her colleagues understand the importance of this work.

“I’ve got great collaborators in the Small Animal Hospital who take the time to enroll patients and collect samples, even when their day-to-day clinical work is very demanding,” she said. “This is particularly true of our emergency and critical care service. They deal with the most seriously ill patients in the hospital but they recognize that clinical research holds the key to improving care for their patients.”

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Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of CVM Today.

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

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216