Better seizure medications, more effective pain control, improved surgical methods, new insights into debilitating diseases — many advancements have emerged from the UW School of Veterinary Medicine’s Companion Animal Fund. These research findings are helping pets live longer, healthier lives, and they all began with a gift in honor of a beloved animal.
For 30 years, Companion Animal Fund grants have been awarded to SVM faculty studying specific aspects of animal health to improve treatment outcomes.
The fund is a true cycle of compassionate support and academic innovation. Donations most often originate as gifts made in honor of pets who have passed away. Gifts come from veterinary clinics that have cared for the animals and established strong ties with the school, as well as individual donors honoring animals. In 2019, the fund awarded $182,000 to 21 faculty members.
On the program’s 30th anniversary, we highlight just some of the ways the fund has benefited the school’s clinical faculty and research students, and brought tangible improvements to animals in our care and around the world.
Supporting Oncology Research and Residents
Xuan Pan, an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Sciences, has applied her Companion Animal Fund (CAF) grants toward finding optimal dosing regimens of new treatments for dogs with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL). This aggressive blood cancer is the most frequent lymphoma type in dogs. In people, it is the most common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. More effective therapies are needed because traditional chemotherapy treatment for the disease is associated with poor overall survival.
Pan used her 2017 CAF award to collect preliminary data for a pre-clinical study of the drug Pevonedistat for the treatment of canine DLBCL. She then used her 2018 grant to conduct an initial Phase I clinical trial of Pevonedistat in dogs diagnosed with the disease — the first known study of the drug’s efficacy in dogs.
Dogs are referred to the study from UW Veterinary Care’s Oncology service. For the hospital’s team of oncology residents (graduate veterinarians pursuing specialized training), studies such as this are an opportunity to work as clinician-scientists. Residents evaluate patients to confirm that dogs meet the study criteria and present and publish research findings, an important criteria for earning board certification. Data from Pan’s CAF studies was presented at the Veterinary Cancer Society’s annual meeting and published in the Veterinary Comparative Oncology Journal.
“By funding our CAF grants, we are able to generate new targeting therapy treatments for canine lymphoma and also train the next generation of veterinarian scientists,” Pan says.
A 3D Printing Service Is Born
For Jason Bleedorn, an interest in bone deformity honed during a surgical internship in 2007 led to his current passion for three-dimensional (3D) printing and modeling. A clinical asociate professor in the Department of Surgical Sciences, Bleedorn has received three Companion Animal Fund grants over the last seven years, most recently to evaluate patient-specific, 3D-printed cutting guides for use in surgical treatment.
This support has enabled him to develop a 3D printing lab at the School of Veterinary Medicine and grow a printing service. Bleedorn creates models for use in teaching anatomy to SVM students and serving clients of UW Veterinary Care’s Dentistry and Surgery services. He also consults on cases with other schools of veterinary medicine, making and shipping bone models and surgery cutting guides to collaborators in research and clinical cases.
“As someone who is in the clinic a lot, I have less time to write research grants or run big research projects,” Bleedorn says. “The CAF grants have given me the support to work on useful clinical applications that make a difference in the quality of care.”
Discovering the Genetic Architecture of Disease
Peter Muir, the Melita Grunow Family Professor of Companion Animal Health, has been awarded a total of seven Companion Animal Fund grants dating back to 2007. He oversees the Comparative Orthopaedic Research Laboratory at the SVM, where current projects include genome-wide association studies of canine cruciate rupture and laryngeal paralysis. These studies scan markers across the complete genome of many dogs to locate genetic variations associated with disease.
Muir’s 2010 CAF grant aimed to identify genetic markers associated with cruciate rupture, which would help detect at-risk dogs and facilitate selective breeding strategies to minimize disease risk. Cruciate rupture, caused by fiber tearing in the cranial cruciate ligament in the knee, is the most common cause of hind limb lameness in dogs. “Several billion dollars a year are spent by dog owners on expenses attributed to the condition,” says Muir.
Muir’s 2015 CAF-supported research explored the genetic correlation between copy number variations — structural alterations to the genome that result in duplication or deletion of DNA segments — and increased risk of cruciate rupture. Based on data generated from this work, lab members applied for and received an extramural grant from the Morris Animal Foundation and a prestigious mentored research scientist award from the National Institutes of Health to continue their studies.
“Leveraging the CAF work into foundation, federal, and institutional training grants for clinician scientists is a rewarding outcome,” Muir says.
Currently, the lab is working with the UW Biotechnology Center DNA Sequencing Facility to assemble the genome de novo for the West Highland White Terrier breed, a goal of their most recent CAF grant. Constructing reference genomes from multiple dog breeds with different evolutionary backgrounds will help researchers illuminate genomic differences between breeds and better understand breed-related canine diseases.
“Costs have plummeted; you can do a high-quality genome assembly for $5,000. It has gone from billions to thousands,” Muir notes. “Today one CAF award can cover the cost of an assembly — simply amazing.”
Proof That a Little Can Go a Long Way
Occasionally the Companion Animal Fund has supported research into species not traditionally considered companions if the work will yield important insights for veterinary medicine. Barry Hartup DVM’93, a clinical instructor of zoological medicine, is a testament to the decades-long lasting effects of two such grant awards.
Hartup received CAF support in 2008 and 2011 and is still citing the resulting findings in publications eight years later; most recently in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases. He serves as director of conservation medicine for the International Crane Foundation, headquartered in Baraboo, Wisconsin, but his research takes him to far-away places and has fostered collaborations with organizations including the U.S. Geological Survey and Canadian Wildlife Service.
“What we know about whooping cranes is based mostly on observation,” he says. “CAF helped me get into the field and funded health assessment studies of these endangered birds. These studies, performed in their native habitats, had never been done with this species.”
Nine peer-reviewed journal articles stemmed from data Hartup collected with CAF funding, as well a book chapter and multiple conference presentations.
“It made a lot of things possible,” he says. “It helped me get projects off the ground and leverage bigger directives and cooperative efforts. You’d be amazed at how much good-quality published information and knowledge we get for the dollar through the Companion Animal Fund.”
Veterinary Clinic Sponsors Drive Companion Animal Fund
The UW School of Veterinary Medicine receives tremendous support every year from veterinary medical clinics that make a donation to the Companion Animal Fund when a client’s pet has passed away. These donations are kind and thoughtful gestures at times of great sadness and loss.
All Pets Veterinary Clinic, located in Middleton, Wisconsin, has been a Companion Animal Fund clinic sponsor for the last 25 years. “When we opened in 1995, we were happy to have a way to provide a tribute,” notes Mary Kraft DVM’90. “Many owners are thankful for their pet being memorialized. That the CAF program also helps find cures and better treatments for companion animals is all the better.”
Erin Haroldson DVM’04, also with All Pets, says clients are surprised and happy to learn that a Companion Animal Fund gift made in honor of their pet will go toward research supporting companion animals.
“More often than not we get thank you cards in the mail. People don’t send mail anymore, so that says a lot about the program,” she says. “Sometimes we get two cards — the first for helping them through a difficult time, and the second one thanking us for giving a memorial gift in honor of their pet after they receive a letter about the gift.”
“CAF reaches to better places and obtains a greater good,” concurs another partner with the All Pets team, Natalie Schweitzer DVM’11.
The School of Veterinary Medicine is grateful for Companion Animal Fund clinic sponsors who share in our efforts to ensure that all companion animals lead longer and healthier lives. Thank you to these veterinary medical clinics for their generous participation in the Companion Animal Fund Clinic Sponsor Program from July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019.
This article appeared in the winter 2019-20 issue of On Call magazine.