Meet the visionary Australians in the veterinary field whose breakthrough innovations have made a positive impact this year. By Kerryn Ramsey
Innovator: Dr Nick Beijerink
Innovation: Open-heart surgery for dogs
One of the most common cardio-respiratory diseases in canines, mitral valve disease, kills thousands of dogs in Australia every year. Now—in an Australian-first—open-heart surgery has been performed on a 10-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel at the University of Sydney’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
Dr Niek Beijerink, a veterinary cardiologist specialist, invited Dr Masami Uechi to Australia to perform the operation. Dr Uechi, director of JASMINE Veterinary Cardiovascular Medical Center in Japan, developed the surgical procedure and has been achieving a 94 per cent success rate.
“The technical skills required for the surgery are extremely high,” says Dr Beijerink.
There was much organisation to make the first case happen. The right equipment, such as a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, needed to be obtained, and the right people needed to be on hand, including Dr Uechi, his team including Dr Beijerink himself, and a human paediatric perfusionist to help with the bypass.
This groundbreaking procedure only happened due to Dr Beijerink’s determination and tenacity. The good news is the patient, Prince, recovered well and can look forward to many more years of life.
Innovator: Dr Claire Jenkins
Innovation: Vetchat telehealth
Veterinarian Dr Claire Jenkins created Vetchat, Australia’s largest online marketplace that lets pet owners instantly connect with trusted and qualified vets via video and text chat. She has recently returned from the USA after Google awarded her a scholarship to take part in the Blackbox Connect in Silicon Valley. This was a two-week program where global start-up founders hone their craft of entrepreneurship with a cohort of fellow founders. Dr Jenkins was one of 10 founders chosen to attend.
Vetchat was officially launched in 2015 and has been growing rapidly. It is now Australia-wide and its team of vets has consulted with pet owners in seven other countries across three continents.
“It’s just not practical for pet owners to take their pet to the vet every time they have a question,” says Dr Jenkins. “Search engines can be confusing and on occasion dangerous. We believe that early intervention dramatically increases the prevention of health problems in pets. We have already had many clients attribute Vetchat as the saviour of their animal’s lives. To us, this is huge!”
Vetchat’s main difficulties are around inciting a customer behaviour change when the normal practice is to google or to wait for face-to-face access to advice. Dr Jenkins’ team is also actively building awareness that this service is available and the growth in user numbers is a testament to their success.
Innovator: Professor Martin Sillence
Innovation: Drug treatment for laminitis in ponies
Horses and their owners have been battling with laminitis for at least 2000 years, and the incidence of the disease has not diminished. It has been estimated that laminitis affects up to 20 per cent of ponies.
Now Professor Martin Sillence and his research team at Queensland University of Technology has demonstrated for the first time that the most common form of laminitis, endocrinopathic laminitis, can be prevented using a new medication called velagliflozin. This lowers insulin levels in the blood and is related to a family of compounds used to treat human metabolic syndrome.
“The first step was our discovery that this form of laminitis is caused by excessively high insulin concentrations,” says Professor Sillence. “We proved this 11 years ago by administering insulin to ponies and observing the same clinical signs and pathological changes that are seen in some horses when they graze on lush pasture.”
The study to demonstrate the efficacy of velagliflozin, and a follow-up study on its safety and longer-term effects, involved purchasing, caring for and re-homing over 140 ponies.
“These projects took over two years to complete and involved a team of 12, including six scientists and veterinarians and six technical staff,” says Professor Sillence.
Velagliflozin must still pass through several clinical trials so that enough data can be collected to allow its registration worldwide. These trials are currently under way in Europe.
Innovator: Dr Ruth Pye
Innovation: Saving Tasmanian devils with live cancer cells
Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) has decimated the Tasmanian devil population. It is estimated that their numbers have dropped between 85 and 95 per cent in the past 20 years. There has, however, been some good news.
Dr Ruth Pye and the Tasmanian devil immunology group at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research in Hobart study DFTD and the Tasmanian devil immune system, and how the two interact. Their goal is to develop a protective vaccine against DFTD.
There’s no vaccine yet, but researchers have been encouraged by results from a trial whereby live cancer cells injected into infected devils caused their immune system to recognise DFTD and fight it off.
The vaccine development idea belongs to Professor Greg Woods, an immunologist, and veterinarian Dr Alex Kreiss. When they started, very little was known about DFTD and almost nothing was known about the Tasmanian devil immune system.
“One of the main difficulties working in devil immunology is the lack of specific reagents available to identify components and function of the devil immune system,” says Dr Pye.
Despite the challenges, the research is progressing.
“Dr Andy Flies, the research fellow in our group, has developed some ‘devilised’ monoclonal antibodies. We are in the planning stages of using these in an immunotherapy trial, the idea being that the induced immune response will allow significant DFT-associated antigens to be identified. These could then be used as the antigenic component of a vaccine.”
Innovator: Professor Shane Raidal
Innovation: Virus breakthrough
Beak and feather disease (BFD) is a virus that has had a devastating effect on four rare species of Australian parrots. Finding a vaccine to fight the disease is of the utmost urgency as two species, the Western ground and orange-bellied parrots, have less than 50 individuals of each species remaining in the wild.
In 2016, researchers at Charles Sturt University (CSU) identified the structure of the smallest self-replicating virus responsible for BFD. CSU Professor in Veterinary Pathobiology, Shane Raidal, has been working on psittacine beak and feather disease since completing his PhD on the subject in 1994.
“Over this time, research at the University of Sydney, Murdoch University and CSU have shown that the disease is caused by the smallest viral pathogen of vertebrates,” says Professor Raidal. “It is an elegantly simple virus, highly efficient at its use of a small single stranded DNA genome of only 2000 nucleotide. It encodes only two proteins and that is enough to cause the devastating disease so well recognised by avian veterinarians across Australia.”
The production of a vaccine to fight the disease is the ultimate goal of Professor Raidal and the team. “We have greatly enhanced the synthetic production of beak and feather disease virus capsid protein using E. coli,” says Professor Raidal. “Viral proteins such as these are notoriously difficult to synthesise in the lab in sufficient quantity to be used for vaccines. After many years of experimenting with different techniques Drs Ian Patterson, Subir Sarker and Shubhagata Das were able to develop a method that allows the viral protein to be produced in large volumes and with high purity.”
While a commercially available vaccine is still in the future, the significant inroads they have made towards a solution may be our last best hope at saving some of Australia’s rarest parrots.