Natalie Gibbons - Since winning the Kennel Club International Canine Health Undergraduate Student Inspiration Award

Funding awarded by the Kennel Club Charitable Trust has laid the groundwork for potential new treatments for deadly immune diseases in dogs – and launched the research career of a talented young veterinary scientist.

Natalie Gibbons, a student at the Royal Veterinary College in London, was the winner of the Undergraduate Student Inspiration Award in the Kennel Club’s 2015 International Canine Health awards. This scheme, which has become recognised as Europe’s most prestigious veterinary awards, is supported by the US banking entrepreneur and noted dog-lover Vernon Hill and his wife Shirley.

Natalie was nominated for the award when she was undertaking an intercalated degree in comparative pathology – a one-year course of study sandwiched between the second and third years of her veterinary degree.

As part of that degree, Natalie was required to carry out a research project and chose a subject suggested by her supervisor, Oliver Garden, Professor of Comparative Medicine and Immunology at the RVC.

Natalie decided to investigate canine monocytes, a class of white blood cell found circulating in the bloodstream. Previously, scientists have found that in humans there are different types of monocytes performing various tasks as part of the body’s response to inflammation and diseases like cancer. Yet, there is still a lot more to find about the way the different groups of monocytes function in the human body – and next to nothing is known about those differences in dogs, she explained.

That information is important because knowing about the different populations of monocytes would help in creating biomarkers that could be tested in the lab to gauge the severity of a disease and monitor its progress. In the longer term, this knowledge could help in selecting targets for new drug treatments that either stimulate or inhibit the activity of a particular group of monocytes.

Before veterinary scientists can work out what happens to body cells in a diseased condition, they need to understand what is going on in the normal state. For her project, Natalie studied small blood samples collected from healthy canine donors. She used two sophisticated scientific techniques to investigate both the physical appearance of these cells and their biochemical properties. The first is electron microscopy, which uses beams of electrons rather than visible light and can examine structures at a subcellular level.  The second method is flow cytometry, which uses laser beams to identify and separate different groups of cells according to the proteins present on the cell surface, identified by fluorescently tagged antibodies.

Neither of those technologies is available as standard in a typical veterinary laboratory and so part of Natalie’s  £5,000 prize money was spent on buying antibodies and securing time to use the specialised equipment necessary to undertake the work.

The financial backing from the Kennel Club allowed Natalie to process more samples in greater detail than would have been feasible for a typical undergraduate project. “That was important because the more data you can collect, the more reliable your results are going to be. It is the same in any branch of science,” she says.

Equally important, the funding allowed her to be properly trained in the techniques that she would need in her project. The cells being sorted in the flow cytometry equipment are extremely delicate and things can go wrong even when operated by an experienced technician. Natalie completed her one-year elective degree in summer 2016 and was rewarded with a Distinction for her project.

Her results have shown that there are three distinct populations of monocytes in canine blood, according to those proteins on the surface that determine how the cell interacts with other components in the blood. Those three types appear to be analogous to the three varieties of monocyte recognised in humans, known as classical, non-classical and intermediate.

Natalie has written a scientific paper on the study that has been submitted for publication. As the information contained is entirely new, there is a good chance that it will be accepted, a rare achievement for an undergraduate research project. She then hopes to use the remaining money from her award to attend, and give a presentation to, an international conference of veterinary researchers.

But in the meantime, she has returned to the RVC to undertake the third year of her five-year veterinary degree course. Once she has taken and hopefully passed, her final examinations, she will most likely get a job as a veterinary assistant in a companion animal practice as most of her college peers will do. After she has had a chance to develop the practical skills that she has learned during her veterinary training, she intends to go back into research.

“As a practitioner you can only administer the treatments that are already available to the patient in front of you. In research you can be involved in finding new options to benefit many more dogs and helping animals is what we dedicate our careers to as vets. This project has given me an insight into just how much work will go into developing a new drug treatment and that was something that I thoroughly enjoyed,” she says.

In the meantime, her RVC colleagues will be taking on the task of finding out more about the role of these particular immune cells in health and disease. Her supervisor Professor Garden runs the only veterinary clinic in the UK specifically dedicated to the treatment of autoimmune diseases.

These are a broad range of conditions such rheumatoid arthritis and lupus erythematosus in which the immune system attacks normal tissues in the body. About one in 20 people in the developed world is affected by some form of autoimmune disease and they are being diagnosed with increasing frequency in pet animals.

The research carried out by Prof Garden’s team on naturally occurring diseases in pets will likely lead to better management of those conditions in dogs – but it may also help towards creating better treatment for the equivalent human diseases, a concept espoused by the One Health global initiative that promotes parallel studies in human and animals to the benefit of both sides.

Dogs are scientifically interesting because they are much closer to human beings in size and physiology than the laboratory rodents that are used in much medical research. More importantly, the animals seen at his clinic at the RVC are living in normal family homes rather than the much cleaner environment of laboratory animals. So they experience the same environmental factors that influence the development of human autoimmune diseases.

Although Professor Garden will be leaving the RVC in December, the work will continue on both sides of the Atlantic. He will be taking up a post as head of the Philadelphia clinical department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

‘Penn Vet’ is notable in having developed alongside the university medical school, which has fostered strong support for the One Health concept in both institutions.  

In the new job, Professor Garden will be working with scientists who share his ethos, as well as continuing his research collaborations with his old colleagues back at the RVC. Coincidentally, he will also be renewing acquaintances with the people who funded Natalie’s project. As a former student of the university, as well as a keen supporter of veterinary students and research, Vernon and Shirley Hill supported the research pavilion that bears their name.

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.

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