Would you expect scientists studying influenza, human respiratory disorders, multiple sclerosis, cancer treatments, and more to be based at a School of Veterinary Medicine?
Every day, faculty, staff, and students within the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) advance cutting-edge studies focused on many of society’s most pressing health questions.
Federal and non-federal sponsors, training grants, and fellowships make this work possible, and 2022 was a record-breaking year. Continuing an upward trajectory in research funding, the school received $34.4 million in grants and extramural awards.
SVM research carries broad and significant benefits for animals and people, with findings incorporated into the curriculum, clinical practice, and industry partnerships.
“We have a bench to bedside approach,” says Marulasiddappa Suresh, associate dean for research and graduate training. “Our clinical and translational studies have implications for both veterinary and human medicine.”
The following examples demonstrate the cross-cutting impacts of some of the school’s research over the past year.
The UW School of Veterinary Medicine’s infectious disease research — encompassing nearly two-thirds of total research funding at the school — has proven critical to the global understanding and prevention of diseases affecting animals, humans, and our changing environment.
Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a professor of pathobiological sciences, plays a significant role in these efforts and has advanced numerous studies on the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, the Kawaoka lab, which in 2022 amassed nearly $12 million in research funding, leads the Pan-Coronavirus Vaccine consortium. This National Institutes of Health-funded initiative aims to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine that could train our immune systems to respond to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), its variants, and other as-yet-unknown coronaviruses.
Marulasiddappa Suresh, the John E. Butler Professor in Comparative and Mucosal Immunology, has taken a deep dive into the mechanisms of vaccine protection against viral respiratory disease. He’s found that a second line of defense — the immune system’s T cells — may offer protection from COVID-19. His research shows that a new, protein-based vaccine against the original COVID-19 virus could teach mouse T cells to recognize and kill cells infected with mutated versions of the virus. These findings have important implications for future T-cell-based vaccines that could provide broad protection against emergent SARS-CoV-2 variants.
On the influenza front, the Madison startup FluGen, a spinoff from UW–Madison co-founded by SVM virologists Kawaoka and Gabriele Neumann, is exploring a more versatile influenza vaccine that would offer broader protection than today’s flu vaccines. No universal flu vaccine is on the market, but FluGen’s candidate, based on an invention by Kawaoka and Neumann, is one of the most promising. In human trials, the vaccine has demonstrated a broad immune response and protection against infection and illness across seven years of virus drift (changes that make flu viruses slightly different each year). The company is now moving into larger clinical trials.
When COVID-19 emerged in Wisconsin, virology professor Thomas Friedrich and colleagues began sequencing the genes of SARS-CoV-2 samples from infected patients. To date, the group has sequenced the virus from thousands of infections. They quickly post their results online, contributing valuable findings to pandemic response. The work helps keep watch for virus variants more adept at infecting people or possibly carrying mutations that make vaccines and common treatments less effective. It also allows researchers to understand patterns of virus transmission and evolution. For years the Friedrich lab has conducted research to inform global campaigns against emerging and re-emerging pathogens like influenza, Zika, and HIV.
Tony Goldberg, a professor of epidemiology, also studies emerging infectious diseases and how to prevent them. His systems are varied, including solving “mystery diseases” such as fish kills in the Great Lakes, lethal outbreaks of respiratory disease in African apes, bald eagle die-offs in Wisconsin, and diseases affecting invertebrates. These studies reveal how pathogens move between species — not only from animals to people (zoonoses) but in all directions. The goal is to disrupt disease transmission, safeguard health, and conserve ecosystems.
In May, professor Jorge Osorio became director of UW–Madison’s Global Health Institute, overseeing local and global efforts to investigate and find solutions to current health challenges. Osorio has decades of international experience studying emerging diseases — especially viruses and other pathogens making leaps from animal hosts to humans — and ways to prevent their spread.
Professor Lyric Bartholomay co-leads the Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded consortium that in 2022 received renewed support for another five years. The center studies West Nile encephalitis, Lyme disease, and other illnesses spread by mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas, as well as interventions and control methods to prevent transmission.
And faculty with expertise in parasitic diseases, including assistant professor Mostafa Zamanian, are uncovering insights into how existing anti-parasitic drugs work, mechanisms of drug resistance (a growing concern in veterinary medicine), and targets for new broad-spectrum anti-parasitics. This work provides diagnostic and therapeutic leads to battle widespread pathogens of companion animals and livestock — generating next-generation treatment options.
From respiratory physiology to neuroscience to developmental biology, UW School of Veterinary Medicine scientists are demystifying conditions affecting millions of people.
Professors Michael Cahill, Jyoti Watters, and Tracy Baker have shed light on the cognitive and behavioral impacts that sleep apnea — a common disorder in which a person repeatedly stops and starts breathing while they sleep — during pregnancy may have on offspring, from the development of neurodevelopmental disorders like autism to altering the intestinal microbiome. Another study led by professor Sathish Kumar found that maternal sleep apnea increases the risk of adult male offspring developing high blood pressure. Baker and Watters are now collaborating with an obstetrician-gynecologist to share their findings from rat models and determine if they apply to humans.
Several researchers are exploring diseases of the nervous system, including multiple sclerosis (MS), that degrade myelin, the essential insulation around nerve fibers. Assistant professor Jayshree Samanta studies the specific cellular pathways that regulate remyelination, or how myelin repairs itself naturally. Samanta’s goal is to help determine new strategies for promoting remyelination by neural stem cells in the brain. Professor John Svaren is focused specifically on understanding the myelin-producing cells of the peripheral nervous system (outside the brain and spinal cord) and identifying therapeutic drug candidates for several myelination disorders, including Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, which causes nerve damage in the arms and legs.
Another group of SVM faculty, including professors Ted Golos, Joan Jorgenson, Rob Lipinski, and Chad Vezina are revealing new insights into placental biology relevant to human health, pregnancy, and fetal wellbeing (Golos); female and male ovary and testis development and adult reproductive diseases (Jorgenson); how genetic and environmental factors interact to cause birth defects of the face and brain, to develop prevention strategies (Lipinski), and the cellular anatomy of the prostate and urinary tract, informing new treatments for urinary dysfunction and prostate cancer in aging male people and pets (Vezina).
UW School of Veterinary Medicine researchers are also world-renowned for advancing clinical treatments and technologies across species. The school is a leader, for instance, in comparative oncology research, investigating clinical cancer treatments in companion animals (with owner consent) with naturally occurring cancer. The goal is to inform clinical treatments with better effectiveness and less toxicity in both animal and human patients and accelerate therapy development. For example, to combat typically incurable metastatic cancers, a team led by professor David Vail is investigating immunotherapies designed to train a patient’s immune system to recognize cancer cells as foreign and remove them.
The Comparative Genetics and Orthopaedic Research Laboratory, co-directed by faculty members Peter Muir and Susannah Sample, studies genetic diseases that affect dogs, such as cruciate ligament rupture and laryngeal paralysis, which can serve as models for similar conditions in humans. This information not only helps dog breeders avoid carriers or individuals with high genetic risk when breeding but also the dog-owning public, as dogs identified as high risk for certain genetic diseases can get personalized care or preemptive treatment. The findings may also help genomic researchers advance discoveries in human equivalent diseases.
And innovative research into digital dermatitis has yielded sustainable, effective prevention measures and a computer vision model, developed by professor Dorte Dopfer and colleagues, using artificial intelligence for automated detection of this common hoof disease. Digital dermatitis is linked to severe lameness, infertility, decreased production, and economic losses in dairy and beef cattle. With the automated detection model, a small camera captures images of cows’ hooves as they pass by and transmits the images to a computer program trained to monitor hoof health. The system is now being implemented on dairy and beef farms, providing a new strategy to identify cows needing treatment promptly.
“We have a bench to bedside approach. Our clinical and translational studies have implications for both veterinary and human medicine.”
Alongside advancing critical discoveries, the UW School of Veterinary Medicine is committed to developing outstanding scientists.
Federal training grants to the school support veterinarians in pursuing PhDs and developing skills as clinician-scientists — a recognized need in today’s workforce. Several dual degree and certificate options supplement the DVM program with enhanced research training. Veterinary medical students in the school’s Summer Scholars Program undertake a research program to enhance their appreciation and knowledge of career opportunities in biomedical research. And the Comparative Biomedical Sciences graduate program provides research training in core areas of animal and human health.
“That is how we blend research training and research,” says Suresh. “We are generating the next generation of biomedical scientists.”
By Meghan Lepisto. Maddie Arthur, Chris Barncard, Leonardo Barolo Gargiulo, Eric Hamilton, and David Tenenbaum contributed writing.