Texas A&M Professor Receives Grant for Lifesaving Childhood Cancer Research

Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles, an associate professor and the Dr. Fred A. and Vola N. Palmer Chair in Comparative Oncology in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Small Animal Clinical Sciences Department, has been awarded a $94,255 research grant from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

 

Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles
Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles

“Dr. Wilson-Robles is a quintessential clinician-scholar whose independent and collaborative discoveries are carving the path to a better understanding of cancer and, ultimately, to effective cancer treatments in canine patients that will eventually translate to human patients,” said Dr. Eleanor M. Green, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University.

Wilson-Robles’ grant is one of 90 given to professors from across the country by St. Baldrick’s Foundation. The foundation is providing $23.5 million in its summer grant cycle to support the brightest minds in the pediatric cancer field.

“For nearly a decade, Dr. Wilson-Robles has conducted leading-edge clinical trials that impact human and animal health,” said Dr. Jonathan Levine, department head, professor, and Helen McWhorter Chair in Small Animal Clinical Sciences. “This grant represents an exciting extension of her work on bone cancer, this time exploring the lethal spread of tumor cells to other sites in the body.”

Her project, funded through June 2018, will examine a new drug that targets the cells that spread; this process has shown promise as a therapy.

“Bone cancer is an aggressive disease in both children and pet dogs that can be painful and often leads to death of the patient even with aggressive surgery and chemotherapy,” Wilson-Robles said. “Most often these patients die because the tumor has spread to other areas of the body, not from the original bone tumor, which is often removed with surgery. Therefore, in order to better battle this disease, new therapies that target the cells that spread are needed.

“Our goal is to more thoroughly investigate this drug for its ability to prevent or delay spread of the tumor cells using both human and dog bone tumor cells,” she said.

Every two minutes a child is diagnosed with cancer worldwide. One in five kids diagnosed in the U.S. will not survive, and of those who do, two-thirds will suffer from long-term effects from the very treatment that saved their life; each phase of the research process, from the laboratory to translational research to clinical trials, plays a crucial part in developing new therapies that will give kids with cancer the healthy childhoods they deserve.

“St. Baldrick’s leads the charge to take childhood back from cancer and is dedicated to funding the best research, no matter where it takes place,” said Kathleen Ruddy, CEO of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. “Through our grants, we are proud to support world-class experts of today, as well as the next generation of researchers whose innovative approaches employ cutting-edge technology and emerging science to find cures and treatments to create a growing generation of childhood cancer survivors.”

The St. Baldrick’s Foundation, is a volunteer-powered charity dedicated to raising money for  childhood cancer research.

To learn about other research St. Baldrick’s is funding, visit the  grants search page here.

Spinal Cord Study Finds Drug Can Change Bladder Function in Dogs, Possibly Humans

LevineDexter

Levine Dexter
Dr. Jonathan Levine with Dexter

Texas A&M University and University of Texas at Austin researchers have discovered that in dogs with naturally occurring spinal cord injury, a drug that blocks matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) allows the bladder to stretch more easily as it fills.  Such a change will likely reduce the discomfort that is commonly associated with the inability to void urine after spinal cord injury and may improve bladder function.

This clinical trial, evaluated 93 dogs that sustained naturally occurring spinal cord injuries resulting from disc herniation.  These injuries are most common in dachshunds, a breed that has a 20 percent lifetime risk of developing disc herniation, which can often cause sudden spinal cord injuries, according to Dr. Jonathan Levine, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery and department head of Small Animal Clinical Sciences in Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).

“This breed has degeneration of their discs, including changes like dehydration and mineralization, starting early in life,” Levine said. “Because they have this early onset degeneration, dachshunds are set up to have disc herniation at a higher rate than other breeds.

“For a dachshund, these disc herniations consist of rapid displacement of the disc and bruising plus compression of the spinal cord,” he said.

This clinical trial, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and published in the 2017 May issue of the Journal of Neurotrauma, was based upon earlier studies led by Linda Noble-Hauesslein at the University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of California at San Francisco.  Those early study were the first to demonstrate that MMPs, present in the injured spinal cord, contributed to the long-term loss of function after spinal cord injury.  These encouraging findings led to the two-cohort clinical trial in spinal cord injured dogs in which Levine and his team administered the MMP inhibitor GM6001 to one set of dogs and provided a placebo to another set.

It is often difficult to empty the bladder after spinal cord injury and this can result in an increase in pressure within the organ. Using a technique called cystometry, the researchers measured the pressure in the bladder and found that dogs treated with GM6001 showed a greater capacity to stretch in response to filling (called compliance).

“We were trying to figure out how they recover from a urinary standpoint. Nobody knew. We knew a little bit just observing the dogs, whether they urinated again or not after their injuries,” Levine said. “What we found was that dogs that got the drug had bladders that were a little more forgiving, or a little more stretchy, compared to dogs that didn’t.”

The results, according to Levine, have significant implications for humans with spinal cord injuries as well.

“These injuries are actually very similar to traumatic spinal cord injuries in people, where there is compression and bruising of the cord,” he said.  “People with injuries often have bladders that don’t stretch very well, so they might fill just a small amount of urine and then they have to empty. They have bladder urgency; it’s very uncomfortable.

“If you talk to people with spinal cord injury or you look at the literature, what you learn is that recovery of urinary function is as important or more important to those individuals than walking,” he said.

As many as 12,000 people in the United States are affected by acute spinal cord injuries similar to those found in dachshunds, and while there is a movement within the drug industry to use therapies already approved by the FDA, Levine said there are classes of FDA-approved drugs that are very similar to GM6001 that are currently being used for different treatments but, with further study, might be applicable to human spinal cord injuries as well.

“The results of this study are really encouraging in terms of a way forward,” Levine said. “There’s a lot of additional information that needs to get uncovered, but this is a first and very intriguing step at looking at how we can help people and dogs that have these injuries.”

The study can be found at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28520505.

All Eyes on Ophthalmology

For many animals and pet owners, the latest specialty service at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) is considered the site for sore eyes. After five years of absence, the Ophthalmology Service has returned to the CVM and has brought along with it Dr. Erin Scott and Dr. Lucien Vallone, both clinical assistant professors in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences.

The Ophthalmology Service officially began “seeing” patients on January 11, 2016, and is expected to see approximately 1,300 cases in its first year of operation. Scott and Vallone, two New York natives, began working at Texas A&M; University in the summer of 2015, extending their best efforts to get the service up and running. Today, they are prepared for anything that walks through the door-from penguins to dogs to horses and cattle.

Generally, the Ophthalmology Service works on referrals from primary care veterinarians, but the service is also an important resource to rural communities in the Bryan/College Station area that may not otherwise have access to an ophthalmologist.

“The family veterinarian is a wonderful front line for detecting eye diseases. If they see any abnormalities, then they can send a referral to us,” Scott said. “We are here to chat with clients one on one, educate them about their pet’s eye disease, and develop the type of relationship that I think they appreciate.”

Experts in Eyes of All Types

Dr. Lucien Vallone
Dr. Lucien Vallone examining a patient

Both Scott and Vallone are diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO), meaning they are the best of the best. Only about 400 veterinarians have completed the additional four or more years of schooling after veterinary school required to specialize in veterinary ophthalmology. This training gives them expertise in a wide range of procedures and the ability to treat an assortment of species, from livestock to pets to wildlife.

“We’re trained to know about the differences in many species ranging from fish to non-human primates,” Scott said. “For the most part, the eye works the same in most species and has very similar structures, but there are intricate differences between each species that we need to be aware of.”

Notably, the service has recently collaborated with Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas, to provide care to penguins with age-related cataracts. “That was a really fun experience set up by our Zoological Medicine Service to respond to a request from Moody Gardens, which is an aquarium and interactive park open to the public. They happened to have about 30 penguins affected by some level of lens disease,” said Vallone. “Moody Gardens is interested in making their animals as comfortable in their environment as possible by getting ophthalmologists to screen them for cataracts and potentially treat them. So far, we’ve successfully treated three penguins with blinding cataracts.”

The Importance of Veterinary Eye Care

Scott

Dr. Erin Scott performing an eye exam
Dr. Erin Scott performing an eye exam.

Unlike most humans, many animals rely on senses other than vision and can adjust well to loss of sight. “Vision, for dogs, is not their most important sense,” Scott said. “Even if they are permanently blind, they still have a wonderful quality of life. We can give their owners different options, and the options that may not be standard for humans can be very good for our patients. We focus on educating owners about how to protect their blind pets from certain dangers.”

“We often transition the conversation to comfort rather than vision because most dogs will adapt perfectly even without their vision,” Vallone echoed. “Some owners don’t even know that they have a blind dog because the dog has memorized the layout of the household. When the owners take them to an unfamiliar environment, they may notice that their dog has bumped into a few things.”

Although many animals can adjust to vision loss, it is no less important to maintain good eye health. Some eye conditions can cause pain or discomfort and should be treated. “The most common condition would be glaucoma, where there’s a high painful pressure inside the eye that’s damaging the tissues and causing blindness,” Scott said. “If we can’t control the pressures, there are salvage procedures that we can offer that can provide comfort, even if vision cannot be saved.”

Training the Next Generation of Veterinarians

In addition to their clinical duties, Scott and Vallone serve as professors and impart their knowledge to veterinary students. Like their colleagues at the CVM, Scott and Vallone use the latest and most effective teaching methods to keep students engaged and help them retain what they learn.

“We are currently teaching the third-year veterinary class,” Scott said. “They have a medicine mega-course in which they complete 10 hours of ophthalmology. We’ve completely revamped our lectures with the help of the Center for Educational Technologies, and we use Moodle, an online resource that allows us to ask questions and allows the students to answer on their laptops in the classroom. We can get real-time answers and be able to discuss any gaps in their knowledge. We’ve been getting positive feedback so far regarding our lectures.”

Renovations to the CVM’s facilities also pave the way for positive changes in the classroom. “The sky is the limit for how interactive you can make the program,” Vallone said. “The new Veterinary & Biomedical Education Complex will be much more accommodating to interactive learning. There, we can break up the classroom structure and create seating arrangements that accommodate smaller groups versus just a block of a hundred students, which makes it difficult to walk around and answer individual questions.”

For some students, the rotation with the Ophthalmology Service inspires them to pursue a specialty. Even if the students don’t specialize in ophthalmology, their training with the Ophthalmology Service allows them to understand what is normal and abnormal and when they should refer a patient to a specialist. “I’ve seen where students come in through a sense of obligation because they feel like it’s a requirement to be able to understand how to do an eye exam, but then they leave with a new found interest for the actual subject,” Vallone said.

Similarly, Scott said, “I know the students really felt a need for more in their training in ophthalmology, so it was so easy to get them to come to our rotation, and they’re really eager to learn and really appreciative of everything that we offer. I’ve had just wonderful interactions with the students.”

Vision of the Future

Although the service has just opened, Scott and Vallone already have plans to expand, something they’ve been doing since day one. “We had to renovate the space that was definitely not suited to seeing more than one case at a time, and now we’ve converted it to two exam rooms and a small work area so that we can accommodate students and try and expand our case load,” Vallone said.

With the addition of a newly renovated small animal hospital, Scott and Vallone foresee their workspace potentially doubling in size to better accommodate patients and students alike. “We joke that we make use of every single inch of our space,” Scott said. “Certainly, in the future, it will be great to have more space.”

The Ophthalmology Service’s plans also include expanding research. “We have a study that will be starting soon,” Scott said. “We’re looking at pain management in dogs that have their eyes removed for ocular disease, and we’ll be collaborating with the Anesthesiology Service for that study. I know Dr. Vallone is working on identifying a new structure in the horse third eyelid that has never been described before. We have many different projects in the mix. Right now they’re all in their infancy, but in the next year or so they’ll really start to take root and build. I would say for the most part our research is clinical, so we are bridging what we do in the clinics to different avenues of research.”

Interdepartmental collaboration is also a priority for the Ophthalmology Service. Scott said, “Another collaboration that we have is with the Zoological Medicine Service. It’s interesting-they see so many different exotic species that really haven’t had their eyes described. Particularly, we’ll be looking at quail and studying their ocular parameters.”

But what makes the Ophthalmology Service strong is teamwork. Scott and Vallone rely on each other for support and guidance. “It’s great that Texas A&M; considered hiring two people at the same time,” Vallone said. “Starting a service that hadn’t been here for five years can be challenging. I wouldn’t have been able to do it alone.”

Dr. Erin Scott

Clinical Assistant Professor Dr. Erin Scott of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS) found her way to Texas A&M; University in 2015 as she pursued a career as an academic. Scott graduated from the veterinary college at the University of Pennsylvania, completed an internship at Louisiana State University and a fellowship and residency at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dr. Lucien Vallone

Veterinary medicine wasn’t the first career choice for Vallone, now a clinical assistant professor with VSCS. Vallone started out as an engineering major at Binghamton University in New York, and he eventually applied to veterinary school and was accepted to Mississippi State University and later completed an internship and residency at Cornell University.

Leading in Animal Oncology

Veterinarians at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) serve on the front lines of the war on cancer. Some of their discoveries not only save beloved pets’ lives but also offer hope for treating cancer in humans. As the fastest growing disease on earth, cancer has been the focus of a national “war” proclaimed by every United States president since Richard M. Nixon. By 2030, experts believe there will be 22 million cases of cancer in humans worldwide.

 

A Longtime Leader in Animal Oncology

Dr. Claudia Barton
Dr. Claudia Barton

As a pioneer in animal oncology, Dr. Claudia Barton, a CVM professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS), has seen the field go through monumental changes during the past 40 years. Soon after her arrival at Texas A&M; University in 1976, Barton remembers a retiring veterinarian handing her multiple boxes of Kodachromes, or slides, of cancer tumors. “The only treatment that anybody had done at that time on animals with cancer was surgery. That was about all there was,” she said.

Barton’s interest in oncology began when she earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Missouri (UM). After graduation, Barton followed Dr. George Shelton, a former UM dean, who became the CVM dean in 1973. “We worked together when I was a student at Missouri, so he asked me if I wanted to pursue a residency in pathology at Texas A&M;,” Barton said. “I came here, did the residency, and then went back to teach at the University of Missouri. Then it was Easter Sunday, and I could not get my car out of the driveway because there was so much snow. A position came open at Texas A&M;, and the bluebonnets were blooming there, so I applied for it. I took a salary cut to come here, but I did not want to live in the snow.”

The field of animal oncology was quickly emerging when Barton returned to the CVM. She didn’t waste any time. Immediately, she began working with other top researchers to found the Veterinary Cancer Society. “We all got together in a little office around a table and just said, ‘We need to start a specialty of oncology,'” Barton said. “It was a dynamic group of people, including pathologists, surgeons, and internal medicine folks, who were interested in cancer.” Today, the professional society serves more than 800 members internationally.

Early Advances in Radiation Therapy and Chemotherapy

The CVM was among the first colleges to offer radiation therapy for animals. Initially, the veterinarians used an orthovoltage unit, which was a routinely used diagnostic radiology machine. A human hospital eventually donated the more advanced cobalt teletherapy unit to the CVM. “It was difficult and expensive to actually bring this unit into the radiation department because they had to build a shielded facility with many layers of concrete in the walls so that the radiation would not permeate outside of the room,” Barton said.

Although these early radiation technologies were helpful for diagnosing and treating cancer, they did pose a risk to the animal. “The problem with this type of therapy was that you had to use a high dose to get any penetration into deep tissues, so there were a lot of radiation burns,” Barton said.

During these early years of treatment options and while chemotherapy drugs were still in their infancy, CVM researchers found radiation therapy to be a useful procedure when surgery wasn’t an option. “As chemotherapy advanced, a few drugs were developed, but our veterinarians didn’t have access to them,” Barton said. “Most of the drugs that we use today became available for veterinary medical use after I began my career in oncology.”

The Advancement of Cancer Treatment in Animals

The introduction of imaging technologies, such as computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and positron emission tomography–computed tomography (PET-CT) scans, has moved veterinary medicine light-years ahead in the fight against cancer. “In the old days, if a dog came in with nasal bleeding and was found to have a nasal tumor on X-rays and radiographs, the only way surgeons could determine how extensive it was was to go in and start probing around to find out if it had gone behind the eye or broken through the bone between the nasal cavity and the brain,” Barton said. “Now, with CTs and MRIs, we don’t have to put dogs through those procedures, and it has been such an advance in veterinary medicine.”

These various scans provide important information to veterinarians as they diagnose and treat cancer. For instance, CVM veterinarians can use CT scans to combine X-ray images taken from different angles and then create cross-sectional images of bones, blood vessels, and soft tissues of an animal’s body through computer analysis. An MRI scan uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the animal’s organs and tissues. PET-CT scans, the latest imaging technology, allow researchers and clinicians to view any abnormal activity in the animal’s tissues and organs. This scan also can identify a target for biopsy and help researchers analyze the effectiveness of cancer treatments.

Barton believes advancing technology will open the way to new discoveries and better treatments. “We’ll be able to see, finally, tiny little foci of tumor cells that we can’t appreciate now because they are just too small to visualize,” she said. “I think we’ll even become more sophisticated in our ability to see where tumors are located and then to make the decision about whether you want to put an animal through treatment. Maybe you’re not going to want to put your animal through radiation therapy for its nasal tumor if you find out that it is already somewhere else. In the old days, we wouldn’t have known until they showed up with the clinical signs that the cancer has spread.”

Today’s CVM veterinarians are also more sophisticated in their knowledge of the different types of cancer. “It’s amazing to me that we used to make sweeping generalizations about cancers that were good and cancers that were bad with so little knowledge,” Barton said. “Every day, we advance our knowledge about the biologic behavior of these tumors related to molecular diagnostics that we had no idea about. What we do regularly today would have been considered something akin to Star Wars in those days. Our molecular diagnostic tests also have revolutionized our ability to give people prognoses for their animal’s cancer.”

Searching for Cancer Treatments for Both Dogs and Humans

Some CVM research discoveries also hold promise for helping humans who are diagnosed with cancer. For instance, the Texas Neuro-Oncology Program, which started in 2008, focuses on understanding deadly brain tumors. This partnership between the CVM, the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center began when Dr. Stephen Fletcher, a UTMS pediatric neurosurgeon, saw his two boxers die of brain tumors. He reached out to the CVM’s Dr. Jonathan Levine, an associate professor, department head, and McWhorter Chair in VSCS. Their collaborative studies have found that the growth of spontaneous and highly aggressive brain tumors, such as glioblastoma multiforme in dogs, closely mirrors what happens in humans. The researchers hope to discover novel therapies that will work in dogs, with the hope that these therapies can be translated into a useful form for treating children with similar types of brain cancer.

Researchers also study human cancers to identify potential treatments for animals. When faced with an animal that has an unusual form of cancer, Barton and other CVM research faculty and veterinarians often delve into the National Cancer Institute’s database. “I’ll first start by going to cancer.gov, and I will think, ‘Okay, if this dog with this stage of this cancer were a human, what would they be doing for that human?'” Barton said. “Can we do that? Or is it too painful? Too difficult? Too technically beyond our means?”

Choosing Quality over Quantity

While CVM veterinarians and researchers strive to find new treatments, they also realize that some animals are not good candidates for therapy. Therefore, they try to help pet owners think through the ramifications and consequences of their healthcare decisions. “One of the things that we always have to think about is that the dog or cat or horse is not choosing this for themselves,” Barton said. “They don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I have to make it to Christmas. I have to make it to my child’s college graduation.’ When a dog wakes up in the morning, it thinks, ‘Is today a good day? Do I feel good? Do I get to play with my ball? Do I look forward to my dinner?’ When we take away their good days because of treatment when they’ve only got three months to live, are you going to take a month of that and make the animal not feel good?”

Ultimately, Barton believes it’s important to counsel the owner about the realities of cancer. “Of course, we’re trying to sort out for them what they really want for their animal, what’s right for their animal, and what we can and cannot accomplish,” she said. “You have to keep reminding them that many of these cancers do not have a cure. We’re trying to prolong the animal’s life with quality. We do not want quantity without quality.”

Oncology in both humans and animals has made tremendous strides over the past 40 years, and more breakthroughs are on the horizon. Barton believes that the future of cancer treatments in humans-and eventually animals-will be personalized medicine. “It will be beyond my practice career and probably beyond my life, but they will biopsy a human tumor, and they will find the cancer genome. And then, they will figure out what kinds of targeted molecular therapies will be available based on the genetics,” she explained. “They will apply that therapy, and then the cancer mutates and they will look at the genome again and figure out the next therapy. This process, ideally, allows you to turn cancer into a chronic disease.”

Communicating in Surgery

Enhancing the Ability to Operate

With lives on the line, the ability to communicate during surgery has always been critical. This is even more so the case in a teaching hospital like the one at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), where highly skilled clinical faculty are joined in the same room by the students.

 

2016 07 12 Comm in Surgery
Veterinary surgeons communicating in the surgical suite
For both specialists and students, seeing is communicating in the surgical suite, and sight has been transformed by the advent of digital radiography. On top of enhanced audiovisual capabilities, digital radiography has improved the clarity and speed whereby a surgical team and students can readily see the anatomical areas involved in a procedure.

New technology has not only affected communication within the surgical suite, it has enabled communication with consulting clinicians, who could be located anywhere in the world. For students, it means that when there is not enough room in a surgical suite for their active participation on a case, they can view the procedure and the accompanying images in a nearby rounds room or observation room.

Sonya Gordon, a cardiologist andassociate professor in VSCS, said that digital radiography has improved workflow overall, including the speed at which clinicians can communicate with each other. “Digital radiography changed everything,” she said. “Being able to look at high-quality images and quickly communicate all of the information to others has been a game changer.”

The CVM is expected to open its new classroom and laboratory complex in 2016 and is concurrently developing plans to build a new small animal hospital. Part of the vision includes a client-friendly lobby and waiting space, but for the clinicians the most exciting part of the new planned facility is the increased space and its impact on communication within surgical teams, with students, and with colleagues.

By creating facilities that will function well into the future, the goal is to create space that will accommodate emerging surgical technologies. This may also lead to changes in how surgery may one day be performed.

Dr. Audrey Cook, associate professor in VSCS, noted many of the advanced procedures performed at the teaching hospital are intensely collaborative and often include using small camera-like devices. The space for collaboration and the ability to instantly share images with others, including students, are what makes the future growth of the hospital so exciting for her.

Jacqueline Davidson, clinical professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS) agreed and said, “Digital imaging, text messaging, and smartphones have enabled us to send a digital image by phone, text message, or email, and communicate between colleagues who may not be in the room. However, what we’re hoping is to have audiovisual equipment in the room so we can communicate live with someone who’s not in the room, in real time.”

Technology Improves Communication in Surgery

In the surgical suite, there is often a balance between the amount of space required for the surgical team to perform maximally and allowing students to see procedures without obstructions. In present-day surgical suites, such obstructions include new technology and equipment. The latest surgical equipment enhances veterinarians’ ability to operate and allows specialized procedures to be performed. “We have a lot more technology in the room,” said Davidson. “When I was a veterinary student, the equipment was much less sophisticated and didn’t require a lot of extra space in the operating room, as it does today.”

Along with more technology, surgical teams now involve more specialized clinicians, making communication all the more critical. According to Cook, pre-surgical meetings are now essential for every case because they allow surgeons to understand the strengths and expertise of each team member.

“In the past, we tended to do procedures that were much more basic,” said Cook. “These days, we do procedures that are much more complicated. It’s not unusual for us to do a procedure and have an internist, a criticalist, and a surgeon all working at the same time on the same patient. So, I think it’s really important for the teams to be able to communicate before a procedure starts.”

In addition to the increased number of specialists in the surgical suite, teaching hospitals often have more students in the room. Cook and Davidson noted the importance of including students, but said there is not always adequate room for them to observe and learn from the procedures.

“I think right now we’re limited by physical space. The students might be able to watch some of the procedures in their classrooms and rounds rooms, but that’s not nearly as useful as getting them a more profound presence,” Cook said. “In small rooms, the people we send out are usually the students when we’re pressed for space. That’s a loss because they don’t get to be a real participant in the process.”

Taking Things to the Next Level

 

 

2016 07 12 Comm in Surgery2
Veterinary surgeons using surgical equipment in the operating room

Envisioning what future surgical suites might look like, Davidson said, “What I look forward to the most is having a room that’s big enough to accommodate all the people that need to be there and to have the audiovisual equipment to communicate beyond our current reach,” she said.

Similarly, Cook imagined a day where other centers and hospitals could collaborate virtually. “If we’re working on a patient on a procedure our team has not done before but another team has, we could live stream our imaging so they could be there with us virtually-That would be priceless. Maybe they’re in the same building but across the hallway, maybe they are hundreds of miles away in a different center. That would really be an invaluable resource for us to have.”

Such futuristic concepts of what surgery may become are the driving forces behind the designs for the new facility. Redesigned surgical space filled with the latest equipment in the hands of skilled clinicians will bring the next level of care to the CVM.

Technology may impact collaboration, communication, and the ability to do increasingly complex procedures, but veterinarians at the CVM point out that the most important aspect of any teaching hospital’s surgical suites is the education of future veterinarians. As planning moves forward, the new surgical space will allow a larger number of team members to participate in a case-especially students.

“A lot of the joy in what we do is in that surgical team coming together and making something work,” said Cook. “The more we can involve the students and communicate our excitement with them, the more they’re going to get out of the whole process.”

Currently, the new small animal hospital is in the design phase. An active fundraising effort is working to secure funding that ensures the new facility fosters technological innovation, collaboration, and improved communication for faculty, staff, and students. And of course, central to all planning will be what is best for the patient.

Three Texas A&M Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences Faculty Recognized with University-Level Distinguished Achievement Awards

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The Texas A&M; Association of Former Students (AFS) honored three members of the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) faculty with University-Level Distinguished Achievement Awards, one of the highest honors presented by the AFS. Dr. Wesley Bissett, associate professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences (VLCS) and director of the Veterinary Emergency Team (VET); Dr. Jeffery M.B. Musser, clinical professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB); and Dr. Ashley Saunders, associate professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS) were announced as this year’s honorees from the CVM.

Recipients are recognized for their efforts in one of several categories: teaching; research; staff; student relations; administration; extension, outreach, continuing education, and professional development; and graduate mentoring.

Bissett earned the award in recognition of his excellence in the extension, outreach, continuing education, and professional development category. Musser and Saunders were awarded based on excellence in the teaching category.

“The CVM is fortunate to have such dedicated faculty whose work plays a critical role in the success of our college,” said Dr. Eleanor M. Green, the Carl B. King dean of veterinary medicine. “This is an exciting honor for Drs. Bissett, Musser, and Saunders. These three leaders contribute to the CVM in a unique and meaningful way and help facilitate a welcoming and productive educational environment.”

Dr. Wesley Bissett

 

Dr. Wesley Bissett
Dr. Wesley Bissett

Bissett earned his DVM in 1997 and his Ph.D. in veterinary microbiology in 2007, both from Texas A&M; University. His primary interests are in veterinary emergency response, environmental health, epidemiology, and public health. As director of the VET, he oversees and leads the VET’s rescue efforts.

“I have never seen anyone more passionate about his work than Wesley Bissett is about the VET,” said Dr. Allen Roussel, department head of VLCS. “Dr. Bissett took the VET from an idea spawned in the wake of Hurricane Rita to the largest, best equipped, and most successful veterinary emergency response team in the USA. Through selfless dedication and endless hours of work, he and his team have assembled an unparalleled emergency response unit that touches the lives of animals and human beings every day. While they have performed incredible service on deployments to areas in need, their greatest contribution to the state and the country is working with county officials to develop local emergency response plans and training future veterinary leaders, who will bring emergency preparedness wherever they go. Witnessing the passion and dedication of Wesley Bissett and the successful outcome of his efforts has been one of the highlights of my career as a department head.”

Dr. Jeffery Musser

 

Dr. Jeffery Musser
Dr. Jeffery Musser

Musser joined the CVM faculty in 2000 and has won several awards at the CVM, including the 2003 Montague Teaching Excellence Award, the 2005 Texas Veterinary Medical Association Research Award, and the 2007 Texas A&M; University International Excellence Award. He has also been nominated twice by the CVM for the Bush Excellence Award for Faculty in International Teaching. With an interest in global veterinary medicine and emerging infectious diseases, Musser has worked diligently to provide opportunities for Texas A&M; students to intern overseas in Zambia, Malawi, Norway, Australia, Ghana, and Ecuador. In addition, he has taught several study abroad courses.

“In veterinary medicine, we are lucky to have so many caring, passionate, and outstanding teachers, making it difficult to single out a few for special recognition,” said Dr. Roger Smith, interim head of VTPB. “Musser’s passion for students is obvious to all who see him in a classroom, laboratory, or any student gathering. His love of students, combined with his creative teaching, makes him truly deserving of this recognition.”

Dr. Ashley Saunders

Saunders has been with the CVM since 2005 as a clinical assistant professor, where she focuses on cardiac issues in small animals, including congenital heart disease and heart failure management. In the Small Animal Cardiology Service,

Dr. Ashley Saunders
Dr. Ashley Saunders

Saunders works closely with veterinary students in the hospital to prepare them for difficult and complex cases. She is also a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (subspecialty cardiology) and has been widely recognized for her teaching, having won several other awards. Her teaching awards include the Bridges Teaching and Service Award in 2011 and the Richard H. Davis Teaching Award in 2010; she was also named a Montague Center for Teaching Excellence Scholar in 2009. Additionally, she is the assistant department head for teaching in VSCS.

“Ashley Saunders is a superstar. She is an outstanding clinician-scientist, who is a truly gifted educator,” said Dr. Jonathan Levine, department head of VSCS. “By fusing her passion for teaching, novel technologies, and scholarship, she is defining veterinary education in the 21st century.”

Each honoree will receive a framed certificate from the AFS along with a $4,000 monetary award in a ceremony scheduled for Monday, April 25 at 1:30 pm in Rudder Theater. 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.

Advancing Translational Cancer Research

A Veterinarian from the Beginning

Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles in her lab
Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles in her lab

Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles has known since she was a young child that she wanted to work with animals. “In kindergarten,” she said, “I had the teacher help me spell ‘veterinarian.’ I’ve never wanted to do anything else.” Born and raised in Memphis, it was only natural that Wilson-Robles’ journey to fulfill her dreams would begin at the University of Tennessee, where she received her doctorate in veterinary medicine (DVM). With her DVM in hand, she accepted an internship at the University of Minnesota. Following her internship, Wilson-Robles went on to complete a residency in veterinary oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM). While at UWM, she met the love of her life, Dr. Juan Carlos (JC) Robles Emanuelli. In 2007, they both accepted positions at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), and shortly thereafter married. “We decided that after Minnesota and Wisconsin, anything below the Mason-Dixon line would be fine with us,” joked Wilson-Robles.

Wilson-Robles has since made a name for herself as one of the major players in veterinary oncology. She currently serves as associate professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS) and has been named the first Dr. Fred A. and Vola N. Palmer Chair in Comparative Oncology. Her husband, JC, recently lost his battle with cancer.

Inspiration to Study Medicine

Along with her life-long desire to work with animals, Wilson- Robles was also inspired to study medicine during her early days in Catholic grade school in Memphis. “My school had a connection with Le Bonheur, the children’s cancer center in Memphis,” Wilson-Robles explained. “A lot of kids would come from all over the world and they were able to go to school there, free of tuition while they were undergoing treatment at Le Bonheur.” Having many classmates undergo cancer treatments gave Wilson-Robles early insight into cancer and terminal illness. With first-hand exposure to pediatric oncology, Wilson-Robles became interested in the various treatments her classmates underwent. “I watched what a lot of the kids in my class went through-and some of them died-and I thought there’s got to be something better we can do.” Despite her interest in improving oncology care for children, Wilson-Robles knew she was better suited to a career in veterinary medicine. “I knew I could never do pediatric oncology,” she said. “I just don’t have the stomach for it. It takes a special kind of person.”

Notwithstanding her reluctance to pursue a career in pediatric oncology, Wilson-Robles would embark on a career that would provide invaluable research and medical discoveries to those children suffering from pediatric cancers. She would go about it in an unorthodox way but would come to realize that her patients-the canine ones-were immensely useful in the treatment of children with cancer.

Two Kinds of Research

In her research at Texas A&M, Wilson-Robles draws a distinction between the two different foci of her work. Splitting her time between benchtop and clinical research she is able to work on both sides of veterinary medical research. She describes her benchtop research as “working with cell lines, working with mice, signaling pathways, and a lot of work with genetics.” Largely responsible for creating proofs-of-concept for a variety of drug therapies and genetic studies, Wilson-Robles’ benchtop research often consists of “cells growing in a flask in media so it looks like pink soup. They’re growing in there and I’ll throw some drug in there and see what happens.”

Despite her cavalier description, Wilson-Robles’ benchtop work is exacting and crucially important to the success of her clinical trials. She is ever aware that the “pink soup” she’s testing for genetic anomalies may hold the key for a new treatment for a type of cancer.

Constantly vigilant and on the lookout for potential new uses for drugs, Wilson-Robles works with drugs and drug companies to test pharmaceuticals in various clinical situations to deter- mine their effectiveness in animals. Her benchtop research informs the clinical research. Having experience in both types of investigative techniques makes Wilson-Robles a premier scientist of veterinary oncology with an exceptionally comprehensive research background.

Expounding on the differences between benchtop research and clinical research, Wilson-Robles explained that laboratory work allows the researcher to tweak experiments and try new approaches based on results. “But in a clinical protocol,” she cautioned, “you follow it to a T.” The strictness of clinical protocol leaves very little room for experimentation or improvisation, which is why scientists like Wilson- Robles who are experienced in both benchtop and clinical research are particularly valuable. “There is always a place for discovery,” Wilson-Robles said, addressing the importance of benchtop research. She went on to say, “There are tons of people doing discovery on the human side and veterinary side. But there aren’t many people-a handful of us nationally-that do the clinical trials to the level that we do here at Texas A&M.”

This combination of research skills allows for a more cohesive research study and perhaps a more successful clinical trial. It is important to Wilson-Robles that her research at either end of the spectrum informs the rest of her work. “I do the initial benchtop work to figure out if a certain drug will block a pathway to make a difference,” Wilson-Robles explained. “And if it does, the next step is a clinical patient.”

The patients Wilson-Robles uses for her clinical trials are nearly all client-owned dogs with naturally occurring cancers, and the research aims to treat their disease and prolong their lives. Much of Wilson-Robles’ work focuses on tumor-initiating cells. She describes tumor-initiating cells as “the worst of the worst” by explaining that all cancer cells are not created equal.

The tumor-initiating cells are those that survive chemotherapy and radiation and continue to proliferate.

It is these cells and their uniqueness that make cancers so difficult to treat. “These cells are drug resistant, radiation resistant, and they don’t replicate as quickly as the other cells do, so they’re much less sensitive to other factors,” Wilson-Robles explained.

Her work in dogs harkens back to her early interest in pediatric oncology because, as she said, “Dogs get pediatric cancers.” Working with dogs in clinical trials has allowed Wilson-Robles to contribute to important research in the human pediatric oncology field as well.

“Heather is an amazing scientist and clinician whose work will change the way oncologic diseases are treated in domestic animals and people,” said Dr. Jonathan Levine, head of VSCS. “More importantly, she is an amazing person who understands that excellence is about character and perseverance.”

 

Mentors Making a Difference

Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles
Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles

Focused on a course of study in veterinary medicine, Wilson-Robles met Dr. Alfred Legendre, professor of medicine in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee, during her senior year there. Legendre quickly became a mentor for Wilson- Robles and offered important advice when it came time for her to choose her next step. “He helped me set the path I needed to take and I helped him with some research projects,” Wilson- Robles recalled. “He introduced me to clinical research and that’s really where it started.” Still working at the University of Tennessee despite being retired, Legendre remains an important influence in Wilson-Robles’ career. “He’s one of the loveliest men you’ll ever meet,” she said. “He’s supposed to be retired now, but he can still be found wandering the halls and helping out at the University of Tennessee.”

Though most of what she has accomplished in the veterinary oncology field is due to hard work and dedication, Wilson-Robles does acknowledge the importance of serendipity in her career. “One of the best things that ever happened to me was the match at the UWM, for an oncology residency,” Wilson-Robles stated. Through that match, she met Dr. David Vail, professor of medical oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, one of the “father figures of modern veterinary oncology.” Through Vail, Wilson-Robles was introduced to clinical trials and gained an understanding of how the research and discovery in these trials could translate to human medicine. “He’s a mentor, but he’s also a very good friend,” said Wilson-Robles of Vail. The two still keep in touch and Wilson-Robles noted that even after she left the UWM, she continually asks Vail for advice on upcoming clinical trials. “He and my husband played basketball together,” Wilson-Robles said of Vail, underscoring their close connection and mutual respect and support. Another important influence on Wilson-Robles while at UWM was Dr. David Argyle, the William Dick Chair of Veterinary Clinical Studies and the head of the school and dean of veterinary medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He mentored her in laboratory research and taught her how to take new targets from the benchtop to the bedside.

“He was instrumental in my decision to be an academician,” Wilson-Robles said.

“It has been a great privilege in my career to train and mentor the next generation of academicians,” Argyle said. “I knew when Heather joined my team all those years ago that she would go on to have a great career as an academic oncologist.”

 

Future of Veterinary and Human Medicine

Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles with Logan
Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles with Logan

Understanding the ways in which dogs contract and react to cancer cells and clinical drug trials gives Wilson-Robles a greater understanding-and hope for-future treatment across the patient spectrum. “We’re all mammals,” she said, explaining that the more species that react positively to a treatment, the more likely it is that the treatment will be a successful therapy for humans. “It’s not just a dog thing,”

Wilson-Robles explained, “If I can show that a treatment works in a mouse and a dog and a rat, then it probably also works in a human. The more species it works for, the more valuable your results.”

Because of the complexity of cancer cells and cell growth, dogs are an excellent metric for trials of possible pediatric cancer treatments. Certain breeds of dogs have extremely high likelihoods of developing cancer. Golden retrievers have an 80 percent chance of developing cancer in their lifetimes, while boxers have an 86 percent chance. In fact, cancer is the number one cause of death in dogs over three years of age, and 25 percent of all dogs will get cancer at some point. While numbers like these are staggering, they are useful to Wilson-Robles who, through her research, has been given the opportunity to perform clinical trials with a number of different breeds of dogs. Such broad research bodes well for eventual human cancer treatment. Cancer in dogs tends to be akin to the most aggressive form of pediatric disease, and so, Wilson-Robles explained, “if we can get something to work on dogs, it will probably work on kids.”

However, Wilson-Robles cautioned, there is a danger in treating cancer-regardless of the species-as a singular disease. “As far as the future is concerned, I think the biggest thing is to acknowledge that there’s never going to be a magic bullet for cancer,” she said. “There’s never going to be one thing that cures cancer. Cancer is a group of diseases, and it is a genetic disease.” Underscoring the importance of personalized medicine, Wilson- Robles has praise for institutions like Baylor College of Medicine that run genetic profiles on tumors in order to better understand and treat specific cases using personalized drug and treatment recommendations. Chemotherapy, the current “catch all” method for cancer treatment, is “fighting fire with fire.”

Wilson-Robles warned of the indiscriminate nature of some forms of treatment, but said, “In many cases, this is still the best option for treatment available.”

Going Forward

Ultimately, the goal for Wilson-Robles and her colleagues in veterinary oncology is to perform research on dogs with an eye toward informing treatment of human subjects.

However, Wilson-Robles finds her work with animals rewarding on its own merits. “Now,” she explained, “we’re in negotiations with T-gen, Colorado State, Ohio State, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to do a large national multi-institutional trial looking at drugs given to dogs with osteosarcoma, which would hopefully then lead to approval for the drug for humans.”

Ever passionate about her research and clinical work, Wilson- Robles has found a home at Texas A&M. At the top of her profession- and leading the way in research for veterinary oncology and veterinary medicine- she stands poised to make important, perhaps groundbreaking, discoveries in the years to come.

Levine Named Head of VSCS

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Dr. Jonathan Levine has accepted the position of department head of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS) in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) after a national search and will officially assume the role on May 1, 2015.

Dr. Johnathan Levine
Dr. Johnathan Levine

Dr. Sharon Kerwin, VSCS interim department head and a highly recognized educator in neurosurgery and orthopedics, will return to her role as a professor in VSCS.  “We are grateful to Dr. Kerwin for her superb service.  We thank her for stepping in as interim department head,” said Eleanor Green, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “She is a naturally gifted administrator, making her an exceptionally valuable addition to the administrative team of the college.”

Levine is currently an associate professor of neurology in the CVM and holds the Helen McWhorter Chair in Small Animal Medicine.  He has built high-impact collaborations with his colleagues in human medicine in an effort to improve the health of both animals and people.

“Without a doubt Dr. Levine is an outstanding member of our team,” Green said. “He has formed impactful relationships at our university, in the state, and around the world.  His multidisciplinary work in spinal cord injuries is transformative and is not only improving the lives of dogs, but also can be used in future human clinical trials.  As he moves to this important administrative role, we are convinced that he will excel. We all look forward to working with Dr. Levine as VSCS department head.”

Levine received his DVM degree from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2001. He completed an internship in small animal surgery at Colorado State University in 2002 and a residency in neurology/neurosurgery at Texas A&M in 2005. He is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (neurology). His special interests include neurology/neurosurgery, spinal cord injury, intervertebral disk herniation, and neuro-oncology.

“As the CVM and VSCS experience a period of tremendous growth, I am excited about the opportunity to work collaboratively across the college as we continue to develop and strategically plan for our future,” said Levine.

Barton Recognized as Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Dr. Claudia Barton, a longtime faculty member in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), was named a Texas A&M Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence. Barton learned of the honor in a meeting of the CVM Executive Committee held this morning.

Dr. Claudia Barton
Dr. Claudia Barton

After receiving her DVM degree from the University of Missouri in 1973, Barton arrived at Texas A&M University to complete a residency in clinical pathology, which she completed in 1976. She returned to Texas A&M in 1978, joining the faculty of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS) as an associate professor. It did not take long for Barton to begin earning accolades as an exceptional teacher. She was recognized as the Clinical Educator of the Year by the Texas Academy of Veterinary Practice in 1981 and 1982. She received the Distinguished Achievement Award for Teaching at the college level from the Association of Former Students in both 1982 and 2004. She also received the same award at the university level in 2006. Barton is also a two-time recipient of the John H. Milliff Veterinary Faculty Award in 2007 and 2011, and she was awarded the Pfizer Carl J. Norden Distinguished Teaching Award in 2006.

“Dr. Claudia Barton embodies everything that the Presidential Teaching Award is about,” said Dr. Sharon Kerwin, interim head of VSCS. “She is innovative, she is a compassionate and wise mentor, she has inspired and influenced generations of educators in the veterinary profession, she has a lengthy track record of teaching awards and honors, and she has the complete respect, admiration, and gratitude of her current students, former students, and her colleagues.”

As a founding member of the specialty of veterinary oncology, Barton built the nationally recognized oncology service at Texas A&M.; Her two-week rotation in oncology for fourth-year students is one of the most highly regarded by students. In teaching both third-year and fourth year students, as well as numerous residents and interns, Barton developed an engaging teaching style instilling in each one of them a passion for cytology and “making the diagnosis.”

“I think the process of making the diagnosis can be just as exciting as the treatment of the patient, if not more so,” said Barton. “My challenge has been to make each student want to become the ‘Sherlock Holmes of medicine,’ with clues from history and physical examination that can lead them to the ultimate diagnosis and thus to effective treatment if available. I am in this business because I deeply love students, I love the process of learning, and I love to help students love it too.”

Dr. Barton’s nomination for this award included tremendous support from current and former students, peers, and colleagues-each recognizing her for her commitment to lifelong learning and brining the latest knowledge in her field to her students.

“Dr. Barton is a leader in veterinary medicine,” said Dr. Eleanor M. Green, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “She began teaching when there were very few women in academic veterinary medicine; she pioneered the discipline of veterinary oncology, and through her excellence in teaching, serves as both mentor and role model for colleagues and students alike. We congratulate Dr. Barton on this well-deserved honor that recognizes her for her exceptional contributions to veterinary medicine that begin in the classroom and make long-lasting impacts on the profession.”

Recipients of the Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence receive a one-time, after-tax stipend of $25,000 in addition to their salary, and bear the designation of Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence for the remainder of their careers.

Texas A&M Professor Named Fellow of the American Gastroenterological Association

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) announced today that Dr. Jan Suchodolski has been named Fellow of the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), the nation’s oldest medical society dedicated to disorders of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Through the fellowship program, the AGA honors superior professional achievement in clinical private or academic practice and in basic or clinical research. Fellowships are awarded to AGA members whose accomplishments and contributions demonstrate personal commitment to the field of gastroenterology.

Dr. Jan Suchodolski“Out of the eight veterinarians recognized as fellows of the AGA, only three work at veterinary schools while the other five are at medical schools,” said Suchodolski. “It is rewarding to know that the research we have conducted in the GI Lab at the CVM is recognized not only for improving the health and well-being of dogs and cats, but also for serving as a translational model to address GI problems common in humans as well.”

The GI Lab at the CVM is an internationally known research program that has developed many of the diagnostic tools that veterinarians around the world use in their clinical practice. In addition to Suchodolski, Dr. Jörg Steiner, who serves as the director of the GI Lab, is a current AGA fellow. Suchodolski and Steiner oversee the research component of the laboratory as well as a vibrant clinical pathology referral service.

“Achieving fellowship status in the American Gastroenterological Association is a superior achievement and it is very unusual for a veterinarian to be honored in this way,” said Dr. Sharon Kerwin, interim head of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. “Dr. Suchodolski’s research has a very important impact on human and animal health and it’s gratifying to see it recognized by such a prestigious organization.”

The mission of the AGA is to promote the science and practice of gastroenterology through the support of research, education, advocacy, and practice.

“AGA acknowledges our members with superior professional achievement in the field of gastroenterology with fellowship within our organization,” said John I. Allen, MD, MBA, AGAF, and AGA Institute President. “We are proud to announce the 2015 inductees for the AGA Fellowship Program who have been recognized by their peers and community as being at the forefront of our field.”