Veterinary research study moves forward

National Academies calls on animal health experts for input
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During a public workshop in late July, a number of participants told the National Research Council committee conducting the "National Needs for Research in Veterinary Science" study that the work force, infrastructure, and funding needed to do veterinary research is insufficient. 

The NRC, part of the National Academies, held the workshop as part of its information-gathering effort for a study to assess research needs in three fields of veterinary science: public health and food safety, animal health, and comparative medicine. Many animal health experts suggested to the committee that one of the main problems is creating incentives for institutions to fund research as well as for people to enter research. 

Incentives for funding
Dr. Jack Kinkler, executive director of comparative medicine at Pfizer Inc., said that only 17 animal health products have sales exceeding $100 million, even though the development of these products costs tens of millions of dollars. There is little incentive for companies to develop animal health drugs. 

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, agreed. "If you can have a major return on your investment of 40 percent (for a human drug) versus 10 percent for an animal drug, or 15 percent at the most for an animal drug, then it doesn't take a lot of encouraging to put that money into human drug research and development," Dr. Sundlof said. The animal health segments of large pharmaceutical companies are continually being squeezed because they don't generate the profit that the human segments do. 

"Animals don't buy and they don't vote," Dr. Kinkler said. "We can never afford to do this research if we have to justify the investment in terms of producing commercially viable animal health products." 

Dr. Sundlof says that the methods used to evaluate the safety, efficacy, and quality of medical products, as they move from product selection and design to mass manufacturing, must be modernized. The development process has become a serious bottleneck to the delivery of new products. 

"We are still basically using the old animal models, where you give the animals graded doses of a drug and see what happens," Dr. Sundlof said. "This is a very blunt instrument." He says researchers should rely more heavily on bioinformatics, metabolonomics (the study of metabolic pathways), and proteomics (the study of proteins) to develop new ways of evaluating products that will be more rapid and less expensive. 

Public health benefits
Animal health researchers need to fight for funding, not just for the health and quality of animals' lives, attendees said, but because public health depends on it.  

"This is not just about animals and not just about humans. You need to look at these interactions between people, pets, wildlife, livestock, and the environment to be able to understand what is going on," said Dr. Nina Marano, acting associate director for veterinary medicine and public health for the National Center for Infectious Diseases. 

She pointed out that the number of diseases, such as West Nile and influenza, that are known to transfer between species has increased in recent years. This past spring, for example, University of Florida researchers reported that equine influenza jumped the species barrier, killing eight racing Greyhounds at a racetrack in Jacksonville, Fla. This was the first time this disease has been identified in dogs. "The potential (for transferring) is there, and we need to be able to understand it in terms of what it represents for humans," Dr. Marano said. 

Joshua Rosenthal, PhD, deputy director of international training and research at the National Institutes of Health Fogarty International Center, listed a number of other diseases that are in urgent need of further study, including plague. "We have no idea what maintains this (plague) pathogen in the wild," he said. "We have no predictive potential to know whether or not we are more likely to have another outbreak." 

The percentage of emerging diseases that relate to wildlife and domestic animals is about 75 percent, Dr. Rosenthal said. 

Dr. Kinkler said animal researchers need to leverage the learning and tools from human medical research. "Our present and future priority is to capitalize on the potential for tremendous portability of the learning that we do in biomedical research," he said. Researchers should investigate, for example, whether drug targets that work in humans will also work in other animals. 

Dr. Edward Breitschwerdt, a professor of internal medicine at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, said that animal researchers need to attract more funding by emphasizing the comparative medicine benefits. He points out that the map of the canine genome helped researchers localize genes for ocular diseases in dogs and humans. Diabetes and obesity in dogs and cats has obvious parallels with human medicine, and many other diseases could benefit from comparative models. 

Incentives for researchers
Attracting funding is not the only thing that the veterinary research community needs to worry about—attracting researchers is another problem, and this, again, is a matter of creating incentives. Several speakers emphasized that there aren't enough veterinarians with advanced degrees to conduct the research needed. Dr. Kinkler worries the supply could dwindle further because of two trends. 

First, more women are entering the profession—the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges estimates that 65 percent of veterinary students today are women. "When women pursue the advanced degrees that I have been describing, they are likely to have even greater demands for work/life balance," Dr. Kinkler said. 

The second trend is that more veterinarians are choosing to go into part-time practice. "If this is an increasingly attractive option in the private sector, then industry may be served to accommodate something similar to compete for those minds," Dr. Kinkler said.  

Dr. Rosenthal mused that the veterinary schools should come up with strategies to attract students with broader interests at the outset. Another possible solution is to mimic how human medicine attracts researchers. 

"Veterinary medicine has a tremendous opportunity because, just like at a medical school, we have a tremendous work force that can participate in our research enterprise, if we just restructure our orientation of these individuals," Dr. Breitschwerdt said. 

North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine started a clinical investigator program in 1985. According to Dr. Breitschwerdt, it worked well for some time, but is now having trouble attracting people to the program because of competing demands in specialty practice. Specialty practices offer high salaries. 

More collaboration
One option that could help the funding and the manpower problems is fostering more multidisciplinary efforts. 

"We in public health recognize that we have multiple partners out there," Dr. Marano said. "We very much need to be able to fund multidisciplinary research that falls into the gap that is not human research, that is not agriculture research, but is research at the interface of human and animal health." 

Dr. William Wagner, who has a part-time appointment with the Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service and is a visiting professor at The Ohio State University, is another advocate of this. He says the CSREES' shrinking resources will require the agency to focus funding on fewer diseases, rather than attempting to work on all high-priority areas with small investments. 

"In my view, the best solution to solving the funding crisis in animal disease research is to foster more collaborative and interactive programs among the various federal agencies," Dr. Rosenthal said. He says, however, that because funding for CSREES has been lacking, it has been difficult to establish collaborative efforts with sister agencies. 

Unfortunately, it is again a problem with incentives. 

The NRC committee conducting the "National Needs for Research in Veterinary Science" study will digest the information presented at the July public workshop as it prepares its report, due out next spring. 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.