Eyes are the window to the soul according to an old proverb – but they also offer a view into what’s going on in the rest of the body, according to Sheila Crispin, previous winner of the Kennel Club’s prestigious International Canine Health Awards in 2015.
Sheila commented: “When I was choosing a subject for my postgraduate research after I qualified as a veterinary surgeon from the University of Cambridge in 1972, I wanted to study the whole animal rather than just a single organ system. I chose to work in the field of comparative ophthalmology because I had realised that looking at the eye tells you so much about the general health of an animal.”
Professor Crispin’s career has focussed on a group of diseases in dogs that can be first identified through changes in their eyes. Her research looked at the underlying causes of conditions such as canine lipid keratopathy in which fatty deposits cause clouding in the clear part of the eye, the cornea. Her work has helped pave the way for better treatments to prevent dogs suffering serious impairment of their eyesight and so has made a major contribution to improving canine welfare.
After winning the international award in 2015, Sheila was recognised not only for her contribution to veterinary science, but it also celebrated her leadership of the veterinary profession as president of its ruling body the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, as chief panellist of the BVA/Kennel Club/International Sheep Dog Society eye scheme panel and as chair of the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding.
But she would not have ascended the heights of her chosen profession if she hadn’t agreed to swap the mountains of North Wales for the low fen country of East Anglia. Brought up in the Lake District village of Coniston, Sheila first went to study zoology at the University of Bangor, an equally perfect setting in which to exercise her twin passions for sailing and rock climbing.
On graduation, she had planned to stay in North Wales to do research on the biology of sheep. But her tutor persuaded her to apply for a veterinary degree and she was accepted on to the course at Cambridge with a scholarship from the then Agricultural Research Council.
At Cambridge, she fell under the influence of the doyen of UK veterinary ophthalmologists, Keith Barnett who taught anatomy on the undergraduate course and became the supervisor for her PhD studies.
It was he that pointed out the fatty deposit in the eye of a dog that they were examining, a relatively common finding in this species, which may often have little clinical significance and cause no health problems. “It was only an off-hand comment, he said ‘Look at that – it’s lipid. That’s interesting, why don’t you study that?’, which is just what I did.”
Her research has helped to show that the changes caused by canine lipid keratopathy and its related conditions can be the result of disturbances in lipid metabolism caused by systemic disease such as hypothyroidism or by changes originating in the keratocyte cells of the eye itself. That research has demonstrated that the importance of a precise diagnosis among many similar conditions, and by tackling the underlying cause, the changes can often be reversed. Only in advanced cases would more drastic treatment be necessary, involving surgery to strip away the layer of fatty cells. But that is best avoided, if possible she points out, as the damage caused by the surgery can exacerbate the existing disease.
During the course of her studies, Professor Crispin found that the inflammation that was frequently a root cause of the problem mirrored changes that occurred in human eye diseases, and more surprisingly the atherosclerotic deposits involved in cardiac disease. During many years as lecturer and researcher at the Edinburgh and Bristol veterinary schools she worked closely with human ophthalmology and cardiology researchers in an early manifestation of the currently fashionable ‘One-Health’ concept.
Her major review study entitled ‘Ocular lipid deposition and hyperlipoproteinaenia’, published in 2002 in the journal Progress in Retinal and Eye Research is still widely cited today, particularly in the human medical literature. Indeed, several years after she retired from front line research she was still called back to give presentations to international conferences of researchers in human ophthalmology.
It was these cross-species collaborations that Sheila regards as the most satisfying aspect of her career. “I worked with people like the late Colin Adams, a pathologist at Guys Hospital and Tony Winder from the Royal Free Hospital in London. These were world authorities in their field and it was a very exciting experience. There weren’t any other vets involved, which was regrettable because working with people like that really does drive our science forward.”
After stepping down from her position as professor of comparative ophthalmology at the Bristol veterinary school in 2004, Sheila moved back permanently to the Lake District where she owns a small farm. But she continued commuting back to London to serve on various committees of veterinary and welfare bodies, including Royal College Council.
Her election as president of the regulatory body in 2007 meant that she had to sell her small sheep flock and rent out the pasture to neighbouring farmers. “I realised that I would be spending so much time away that I would not be able to look after the animals properly. It would not have been a good thing to have to strike myself off the professional register for animal neglect,” she jokes.
She devoted much of her energy to welfare issues and with her experience of dealing with inherited disorders in dogs, as chief panellist for the eye scheme, she was a natural choice to chair the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding from 2010 to 2014. That committee addressed the recommendations contained in Sir Patrick Bateson’s independent inquiry into dog breeding, set up in the wake of the controversy over the BBC television programme Pedigree Dogs Exposed.
Sheila expresses frustration that progress in dealing with genetic diseases in dogs has been so slow. But she applauds the work of the Kennel Club funded unit at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket that is investigating the causes of a wide range of conditions in various breeds.
She is hopeful that the scientific advances resulting from the financial support of the Kennel Club Charitable Trust will eventually lead to significant improvements in canine health and welfare. But she warns that genetic testing has to be applied with pragmatism in breeds that may have several different inherited disorders and a limited pool of genetically healthy parent stock. It would be unwise to try to eradicate one disease if it increases the prevalence of another more serious condition.
A natural diplomat, Sheila argues that the only way forward in dealing with any complex issue is to bring people together to talk things through and try to reach a consensus on strategies that can everyone can eventually agreed to – and are likely to work.
“All those involved in dealing with these issues, the Kennel Club, breed clubs, breeders, owners, veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses must work more closely together and with the various animal charities and animal-related organisations,” she says.
“They must all put dogs at the heart of their activities. I have always argued that the question "does it matter to the dog?" is an important and unifying driver for improvement.”
Nominations are currently being sought for the next awards which will be presented at a ceremony at the Kennel Club in London on 24th May 2017. With a prize fund totalling £65,000, the Kennel Club Charitable Trust is urging people to nominate themselves or their peers by 13th February 2017. The awards will be judged by representatives from the veterinary profession and the world of scientific research, including experts in each of the nominees' selected fields. For more information about how to apply visit the Kennel Club’s website now.