The problems with veterinary research are real, the effects far-reaching, and the outlook bleak.
This is what stakeholders told the committee that is embarking on the National Academy of Sciences "National Needs for Research in Veterinary Science" study. Jim Womack, PhD, director of the Center for Animal Biotechnology and Genomics at Texas A&M University, is chair of the committee.
The group held its first meeting in early May, and sponsors were given a chance to weigh in with their views. The committee received insightful input from the AVMA, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, American Animal Hospital Association, and National Association of Federal Veterinarians.
"(Veterinary researchers) have an inability to do all the work that needs to be done," said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, AVMA president-elect.
Endemic diseases such as Johne's are devastating from an economic as well as welfare standpoint. Zoonotic pathogens are a constant threat and make up nine of the top 10 germ warfare agents. The introduction of a foreign animal disease could wreak havoc.
"When foot-and-mouth disease hits this country, or probably any of the other foreign animal diseases, we may not be able to be ready," said Dr. Beaver, noting that the Plum Island Animal Disease Center is the only facility in the United States where live foot-and-mouth disease virus is studied.
Dr. Darlene Dixon is laboratory head of the comparative pathobiology group at the NIEHS. The institute studies environmentally associated diseases, relies heavily on animal research, and is in need of veterinary researchers, she said. "The success of research at our institute and at other institutions is through the adequate training of veterinary scientists in pathology, epidemiology, toxicology, molecular biology, and comparative medicine at an advanced level."
Veterinarians also help the NIEHS work toward reducing, replacing, and refining animal use, by creating and validating alternative models, making sure they represent whole animal physiologic processes.
Dr. John Albers, executive director of AAHA, emphasized that veterinarians have little data on the apparent increase of several diseases in companion animal medicine. "We really don't have any data on disease incidence, with the exception of disease incidence data that is being collected at most of the veterinary teaching hospitals, which, in our view, doesn't really reflect what is going on in general practice," Dr. Albers said.
In the past few years, he said, diabetes and obesity in dogs and cats seem to be increasing, and this has obvious parallels to human medicine. Thyroid disease appears to be diagnosed more frequently in cats, and this may be a signal of environmental changes that could also impact people. And leptospirosis in dogs seems to be on the rise, with potential zoonotic ramifications. Good incidence data, however, don't exist.
Currently, the AAHA is developing diagnostic codes for companion animal practice that will be compatible with SNOMED, the Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine. Manufacturers of practice management software systems have indicated that they will incorporate the clinical codes into their software, which should help track incidence. Practitioners will have to be encouraged to use those codes, however, and a mechanism for collecting the data will have to be developed. "(The area of incidence data) represents a significant deficiency in the area of research, even though it is not specifically research-oriented," Dr. Albers said.
Incidence information that does exist is troubling. According to Dr. Beaver, behavior problems alone lead to the deaths of 13 million dogs and cats per year. "That's 10 percent of the cat and dog population dying from behavior problems. That is more than all infectious diseases in small animals," she said. Dogs bite four million people each year in the United States. And various other problems indicate that more research into behavior is needed.
Roots of the problem
In listing their concerns, stakeholders hit on most areas of veterinary research. They also identified what they perceived as possible sources of the problems.
Dr. Larry Heider, executive director of the AAVMC, says money is not flowing out of government agencies fast enough to cover research needs. "The USDA, by our estimate of the data we can see, puts about 90 percent of their funding intramurally, whereas the NIH is just the flip-flop of that—90 percent goes extramurally," Dr. Heider said.
Manpower is another problem. "I came to this town and into this position about two years ago. Practically everywhere I go ... departments and agencies, particularly those that conduct research, they ask, 'Where are the veterinarians?' We do not have enough veterinarians to fill the need in this country today," Dr. Heider said.
With the U.S. population growing, the problem is expected to get worse. "Currently, we expect to graduate 8.8 veterinarians per million people per year in this country," Dr. Heider said. "Unless we do something about increasing the enrollment in this country or unless something else happens, there are going to be about a third fewer veterinarians per million population (by 2050), and that is something that has to be dealt with now."
Veterinarians also need to be encouraged to enter research careers and obtain advanced degrees. "We have got to come up with a financial motivation," said Dr. Dale Boyle, executive vice president of the NAFV. He says that many veterinarians are drawn to the more lucrative areas, such as small animal practice.
Because few veterinarians are researchers, there is also a lack of role models for young veterinarians who are trying to decide on a career path.
Even with enough veterinarians, infrastructure problems exist on multiple levels. According to Dr. Heider, the number of veterinary colleges increased after World War II, and then the last years the federal government funded infrastructure for veterinary training and advanced degrees or residency programs were the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since the 1970s, with the exception of Western University's new veterinary college, the number of colleges has not increased, and there's no indication it will.
Existing veterinary research facilities are also lacking. "The facilities at Plum Island are cake, at best," said Dr. Beaver, who visited the 50-year-old facilities this past year. The laboratories need updating, and the ferries that transport employees to and from the island pose logistic problems. A Department of Agriculture report has shown it is actually more cost-effective to build new facilities than remodel the ones on Plum Island.
And then, there's the problem with coordination. Several years ago, when veterinarians started recognizing sarcomas associated with vaccination injection sites, they did not have a government agency they could turn to for research funding.
It was only because a number of veterinarians were passionate about the problem that a coalition of veterinary organizations formed the Vaccine Associated Feline Sarcoma Task Force and pooled their resources to start researching the problem.
Committee gets to work
The committee for the veterinary research needs study was appreciative of input from stakeholders. Some reflected that, because there may not be enough veterinarians to meet the research need, the gap would have to be filled with other types of scientists working in collaboration with veterinarians.
In the coming months, the committee will summarize current and past research activities and project future needs for veterinary research in the fields of public health and food safety, animal health, and comparative medicine. The committee will identify the national capacity—expertise and number of scientists, specialized facilities, program funding, and institutional capacity—required to conduct the needed research and make recommendations as to how to meet the need. The report is scheduled to be completed by spring 2005.
At press time, the next committee meeting was scheduled for July 19-20 in Washington, D.C. It will also provide a period for public comment. For more information on the NAS study and the upcoming meeting, visit www4.nationalacademies.org/cp.nsf and search under "veterinary research."