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Veterinary Research Not Just for Animals

Fighting Fungus at the Genetic Level
A Matter of Survival
Reducing Risk in the Meat Supply
Former VCM Head Shifts Focus Research
A Broad Menu of Oncology Research

You’d expect a medical school to foster basic and clinical research with life-saving implications. But you might be surprised at the extent to which research conducted at a veterinary medical school benefits human health.

“Spectacular advances in knowledge are melding scientific disciplines such as genetics, epidemiology, pathology, cell bi-ology, physiology, biochemistry, and clinical medicine,” says Dr. Howard Gelberg, associate dean for research at the College of Veterinary Medicine. “The concept of ‘one medicine’ is becoming a reality. Regardless of species, the biological mechanisms leading to disease are the same.”

Veterinary faculty, with superb grounding in animal biology and access to animal models of all types, are uniquely positioned to assume a leadership role in biomedical research. Our College has strategically identified research strengths in the areas of reproductive biology, infectious diseases, and environmental toxicology. Clinical imaging, oncology, and food safety represent areas of emerging emphasis.

While some research conducted here is specific to an animal species, much has benefits for both animals and humans or is directed solely toward human health. Recent issues of Veterinary Report have noted a few examples: improvements in artificial heart valves and surgical techniques to treat cardiovascular disease; advances that may allow children with bone cancer to grow normally with healthy limbs; findings about the role of estrogen in male fertility.

Whether it specifically addresses the health of humans or animals or whether it more broadly addresses environmental health, research is central to the College’s mission, complementing the teaching and service missions. “Research provides the new knowledge that we use to teach the next generation of veterinarians. It underpins clinical advances,” says Dr. Gelberg. One quarter of all DVM students are involved with faculty research at some point in their studies.

Research also forms the basis for the respect accorded the veterinary field, from the scientific community through to our client base. “Research has the power to propel the veterinary medical profession into a position of prominence in the next century,” asserts Dr. Gelberg. The research program at the College is growing: 
research expenditures in FY98 totaled $5.4 million, up from $4 million on FY 97 and $3 million in FY 96.

The stories here illustrate a variety of ways research at the College contributes to improvements in human health.

Learn more about CVM faculty research at the Office of Research home page on the Web! Go to

Fighting Fungus at the Genetic Level

The fungus Candida albicans is most commonly known for causing superficial yeast infections in humans and animals, but it also causes bloodstream infections that can be fatal. Strains of C. albicans that are better able to adhere to the surface of host cells are also more likely to cause disease. 

Dr. HoyerOver the past several years, Dr. Lois Hoyer, veterinary pathobiology, has been studying the mechanism by which C. albicans adheres to host tissue. She discovered a family of genes that encode cell-surface proteins involved in adhesion and has identified and characterized seven genes in this family. Now her laboratory is trying to learn how proteins made by these genes are involved in the interactions between C. albicans and its host. 

Such information could be used to find ways to block adhesion, ultimately leading to new treatments for fungal infections. Developing adjunct therapies to current antifungal treatments is especially important as resistance to antifungal drugs continues to rise. 

Dr. Hoyer received her Ph.D. in veterinary pathobiology from the University of Illinois in 1989 and completed postdoctoral training at SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and Iowa State University before returning to Illinois in 1996.

A Matter of Survival

Whether he’s studying frogs in Urbana or flamingos in Kenya, Dr. Val Beasley, veterinary biosciences, identifies factors that threaten wild creatures and the ecosystems on which they depend.

With Environmental Protection Agency funding, Dr. Beasley currently leads a team of graduate students and scientists from Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota studying frogs and features of ecosystems that allow them to thrive or cause their disappearance. Frogs are “ecological sentinels.” Because their eggs develop in water, tadpoles eat algae and hide among plants, and adults travel overland to feed and find new breeding sites, these species rely on all components of the Midwestern environment for their survival. 

Loss of fishless wetlands, adding fertilizers and pesticides, killing vegetation in and around lakes, deepening waters at shorelines, introducing carnivorous and herbivorous fish, and pollution have hurt frog populations. Keys to survival of amphibians include ending contamination, allowing migration, and more astute fisheries management.

Dr. Beasely
Dr. Beasley says the affordable way to maintain a range of wild native species is to ensure that human activities, including cities and agriculture, are enclosed by networked natural habitats that remain free from harmful chemicals and introduced species.

After earning a DVM from Purdue University Dr. Beasley practiced veterinary medicine for six years in New Jersey and Ohio before pursuing a Ph.D. in toxicology at the University of Illinois. He is also board certified in veterinary toxicology. At the College he has played an important role in the 

National Animal Poison Control Center before it moved to the ASPCA in 1996. Dr. Beasley has been professor of toxicology and chair of pharmacology and toxicology at the College since 1996.

Reducing Risk in the Meat Supply

Reported cases of Salmonella food poisoning have doubled over the past 25 years, reaching 40,000 a year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes the increase in part to changes in how food animals are raised and slaughtered.

Each year, one third of the approximately 9 million dairy cows in the United States will be culled from the herd. Most of these enter the meat trade. Culled dairy cattle can account for about 18% of U.S. ground beef. And ground beef is a prime vehicle for food-borne pathogens such as Salmonella.

Dr. TrouttDr. H. Fred Troutt has been working with researchers from the University of California-Davis, Cornell University, and Kansas State to study the presence of Salmonella in and on dairy cows sent to slaughter on both U.S. coasts. Prevalence varied, but tended to increase from farm or auction barn to meat processing plant.

Now that the prevalence data have been collected, Dr. Troutt is ready to address the next questions: What are effective interventions for reducing the risk of microbial contamination? How can we put these findings into practice throughout the industry—from the farm through transportation and packing plants? The goal will be to develop cost-effective, practical ways to reduce disease risks throughout the meat production chain.

Dr. Troutt earned a veterinary degree and practiced in Pennsylvania before completing additional studies at Purdue University and the University of Missouri-Columbia (Ph.D. in comparative pathology). From there he was department head at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, helped found Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, and served as director of the Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center at the University of California-Davis for two years before joining Illinois.

Former VCM Head Shifts Focus to Research

When Dr. H. Fred Troutt stepped down last year after 10 years as head of the Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine, he could look back with satisfaction on many accomplishments he helped bring into being. But he’s not content to look back for long. He’s already focusing his formidable talent and energy on making Illinois a leader in public health research.

Progress in the Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital under his tenure was the more remarkable given the bleak fiscal outlook when he came aboard. The hospital was almost a million dollars in debt, and the campus was putting an end to deficit spending. Every major expenditure required campus approval. 

“I saw my goal as establishing a stable financial basis on which faculty could build their goals. I wanted to help bring to talented people the resources that would allow them to excel,” he says. Throughout a period of campus cutbacks, Dr. Troutt steered the department into a position of being able to afford improvements and new programs drawing on self-generated resources.

Among the goals that he is most proud of helping to achieve during his years overseeing the hospital are creation of an extraordinary intensive care unit in the Small Animal Clinic, a very contemporary oncology program, modernized anesthesia and monitoring equipment, and a state-of-the-art imaging division. 

“Administering a department is like conducting an orchestra,” observes Dr. Troutt. “You have a group of tremendously talented individuals and you try to achieve harmony among them, because each part affects the whole. By establishing excellent imaging capabilities, the hospital facilitated growth in oncology and cardiology.”

The clinical faculty are among the best in the nation, according to Dr. Troutt, not only in their clinical skills, but also as evidenced by their research productivity, contributions to organized veterinary medicine, voluminous publications, and teaching both in the professional degree program and in continuing education. 
As department head, Dr. Troutt gave careful attention to the hospital’s teaching mission. “The essence of veterinary medicine education is to provide the very best clinical exposure we can,” he says.

His concern about providing a well-rounded clinical experience for fourth-year students led to creation of the Food Animal Production Medicine Consortium. Initially funded through the Pew Foundation, this program linked six veterinary institutions across the country, each providing students exposure to a different aspect of the field. For example, Illinois students traveled to California and Florida to gain dairy and beef herd experience, while students from other institutions benefited from the swine medicine expertise at Illinois.

The consortium also provided a basis for Dr. Troutt’s food safety research. With collaborators at consortium institutions and funds from the Food Safety and Inspection Service, he spearheaded investigations into the prevalence and spread of Salmonella in culled dairy cows. (See story on page 5.) 

Today his focus has expanded from animal health to public health and protecting human resources. In collaboration with consortium institutions he’d like to start a graduate degree program for veterinarians and agribusiness majors that will integrate the study of pre- and post-harvest food safety. He can foresee building a food safety coalition at Illinois, drawing faculty experts in agriculture and medicine from other colleges on this campus.

Ultimately he wants to integrate public health more meaningfully into the DVM curriculum. A strong research program in this area will help provide veterinary students with exposure to outbreak surveillance, field epidemiology, problem-solving, and other food safety issues.

A Broad Menu of Oncology Research

"Soup to nuts” is how Dr. Barbara Kitchell, veterinary clinical medicine, describes the oncology services available at the Cancer Care Clinic. The Small Animal Clin-ic’s oncology unit, headed by Dr. Kitchell and surgeon Dr. Nicole Ehrhart, bridges the great divide between the surgery and medicine services by holding joint rounds and allowing fourth-year students to follow patients throughout the treatment course in either service.

Dr. Kitchell“Soup to nuts” is equally descriptive of Dr. Kitchell’s research. Her work at both the cellular and the clinical levels is yielding important information for human oncology while it advances veterinary care. For many forms of cancer, mice and other rodents are not appropriate clinical research models, but dogs are. Cancer clinic patients, with the owners’ consent, provide a pool of spontaneously occurring tumors for testing new therapies beneficial to humans and animals.

At the molecular level, Dr. Kitchell’s lab has explored whether activity of an enzyme called telomerase in tumor cells of dogs and cats is an indicator of malignancy. At both ends of all chromosomes are long stretches of TTAGGG repeats, called telomeres. These regions protect the integrity of the coding DNA by shielding it from degradation and recombination. In most normal cells the telomeres erode after a finite number of cell divisions and the cell permanently loses the ability to divide. Telomerase lengthens the telomeres, extends the cell’s capacity to replicate, and renders the cell immortal. 

It appears that telomerase plays an important role in the malignant 
transformation of cells. A next step is to find ways to block telomerase activity and to see whether that results in an effective cancer treatment for dogs—and people.

In clinical studies, Dr. Kitchell is working with a time-release chemotherapy in gel form. The reposital gel is injected directly into an inoperable tumor. Because the gel stays in the tumor, doses at 10,000 times the level of conventionally administered chemotherapy are possible without systemic side effects. Data gathered on the animal patients at the Cancer Care Clinic will provide “proof of principle” support for human use of the gel, which is on a fast-track for FDA approval.

Dr. Kitchell earned a veterinary degree from Purdue University and did additional training at the University of Minnesota and UC-Davis. She left a cancer referral practice in Berkeley, California, to complete a combined Ph.D./postdoctoral fellowship in cancer biology at Stanford Medical School. Her Ph.D. degree was awarded by the UC- Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 1994, the year she joined the College faculty.