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Future veterinarians gain experience in world-class research

Course projects on vaccinating pigs and treating equine pain earn publication in peer-reviewed journals

Dr. Jessica Law, UCVM Class of 2015, left, and Alycia Webster, UCVM Class of 2019, with a piglet involved in a class research project published in a peer-reviewed veterinary journal.

Dr. Markus Czub worked with Class of 2015 students researching vaccines against a pig virus 'of major concern for the pig industry.'

By Bradley van Paridon, for the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

Dr. Laura Fick is one of the students involved in UCVM's Class of 2016 research into treating chronic pain in older horses. Photo by Jager & Kokemor

Having students design and conduct a research project is a part of the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine’s (UCVM) curriculum that’s not found at other veterinary colleges.

And this one-of-a-kind course — where UCVM students work together on a class-initiated research project — has resulted in studies published in peer-reviewed veterinary journals.

A research project into vaccines against porcine circovirus type 2 (PCV-2) took UCVM’s Class of 2015 into pig barns and a state-of-the-art molecular virology lab. The virus can cause suppression of the immune system leading to wasting and secondary infections in pigs.

Virus is  major concern for the pig industry

“PCV-2 is the most abundant pig virus globally and a major concern for the pig industry,” says Dr. Markus Czub, professor, virology and emerging infectious disease. Vaccination against the virus can be effective but the question of the most efficacious time to vaccinate needed answering. “The approach was the-earlier-the-better, but there was no data,” he says.

Czub worked with the students in the molecular virology lab, using sophisticated techniques such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), reverse genetics and virus-neutralizing antibody assays. The students tested the efficacy of the vaccine in piglets vaccinated shortly after birth against those vaccinated later in life.

Their research determined that piglets can be vaccinated at an earlier age than previously practised. These findings — which have great relevance for the pig industry — are published in the January 2017 issue of Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research.

'Vet students are exposed to scientific principles right away'

“Students are exposed first-hand to what it means to do research: scientific working, principles, methodology, literature searches, compiling and analyzing data and then writing it up,” says Czub.  “This is pretty unique in our vet school worldwide. Other schools have research components but not like we have. This is good because vet students are exposed to scientific principles right away.”

“This research project is the reason I have the job I do today,” says Dr. Jessica Law, a veterinarian at Prairie Swine Health Services in Red Deer, who took a lead in the PCV-2 research.

Law says she’s now confident in performing research — a skill required in her new position — because the class study “has given me a base on how to start a research project and carry it through.”

Treating chronic pain in older horses

The Class of 2016’s impressive research project has direct implications for treating older horses with chronic pain. The project, supervised by Drs. Alastair Cribb and Heidi Banse, was undertaken by the students because many horses will deal with chronic pain issues as they age, and there is little research into which drugs are most effective.

According to Banse, “There are many studies demonstrating that using an anti-inflammatory drug is better than no treatment for pain, but there are not very many studies to look at how different anti-inflammatory drugs may compare to each other in different models of pain.”

The students tested two drugs — phenylbutazone and meloxicam — for treating mechanical pain (from muscle-skeletal injury) and pain from inflammation. Both types of pain potentially play a role in lameness (often associated with osteoarthritis) of older horses. 

One size does not fit all for managing pain

They found phenylbutazone was better for treating mechanical pain and meloxicam was more effective for inflammatory pain. The results, demonstrating that one size does not fit all for pain management in horses, were published in the February 2017 issue of Canadian Veterinary Journal. See the study.

Dr. Laura Fick, one of the students involved in the study, is now a veterinarian at Valley Veterinary Clinic in Three Hills. “There’s a huge disconnect between clinicians and researchers and it’s one of the things that I think hinders progress,” she says. 

By participating in these types of research projects, Fick believes veterinarians are better able to understand researchers and vice versa — something she hopes will lead to more veterinarians being involved in directing research toward the health issues they see in daily practice.