Winners of Europe's most prestigious veterinary awards revealed

A highly-respected geneticist, a pioneering professor in canine genetics, a devoted breed health coordinator, a PhD student researching canine transmissible venereal tumours and a veterinary student investigating a genetic disorder in Golden Retrievers have each received one of the largest veterinary awards in the world for the role they are playing in transforming dog health.

The International Canine Health Awards, organised by the Kennel Club Charitable Trust, were held on Thursday 30th May at the De Vere Beaumont Estate in Windsor. The winners were given prize money to further their work in the field of canine research, underwritten by a major gift from Vernon and Shirley Hill of Metro Bank.

Nominations for the awards were judged by a panel of influential representatives from the veterinary profession and the world of scientific research. The panel included Dr Andrew Higgins, Honorary Editor-in-Chief at the Veterinary Journal; Dr Nick Blayney, veterinary surgeon and veterinary advisor to the Kennel Club; Professor John Innes, UK Referral Director at CVS; Professor Holger Volk, Professor of Veterinary Neurology and Neurosurgery and Head of Department of Clinical Science and Services, Royal Veterinary College (winner of the International Award in 2016); Professor Paul McGreevy, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science at the Faculty of Veterinary Science University of Sydney (winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017); Dr Adrian W Philbey, Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Pathology at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh; Professor David Argyle, Dean of Veterinary Medicine and Head of School, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Sciences and Dr Dan O’Neill, Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Epidemiology at the Royal Veterinary College;

Launched at Crufts in 2012, the International Canine Health Awards were developed to recognise and reward innovative researchers, veterinary scientists and students who are significantly impacting the health and well-being of dogs. The winners have won awards for their work in the following areas:

Dr Danika Bannasch, awarded £40,000 for the International Award  – The 2019 recipient of the International Award was recognised for her significant contributions to developments in canine genetics.

Dr Bannasch has been responsible for the development of genetic tests for seven different canine diseases, including the hormonal defect hyperadrenocorticism and the bone development condition Chonrodystrophy. Chrondrodystrophy and associated intervertebral disk diseases (IVDD) affect millions of dogs worldwide and cause severe pain and suffering in those dogs, resulting in paralysis or expensive surgical intervention in some cases.  The identification of the mutation responsible allows the possibility of reducing, or even eliminating IVDD in dog breeds through the use of genetic testing. After receiving her award, Danika said: “This is an incredible honour. I have devoted my life to dog genetics and I hope that in the long run less dogs will suffer from conditions that are preventable by genetics and genetic testing.”

Associate Professor Gary Johnson, awarded £10,000 for the Lifetime Achievement Award – The winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award received the award for his lifelong work dedicated to canine genetic disease, which is believed to have saved the lives of countless dogs. Having worked on improving diagnostic methods for bleeding disorders in dogs, he was responsible for establishing the canine buccal mucosa bleeding time test, as the standard procedure for detecting these conditions in dogs.

Associate Professor Johnson’s laboratory in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri offers approximately 40 different genetic tests for diseases and was one of the first in the world to adopt whole genome sequencing as the primary strategy for identifying genetic mutations associated with heritable disease in dogs and other domestic species.

As a result, this work has generated 153 whole genome sequences in dogs of various breeds and diagnosed 83 different heritable diseases, including the missense mutation responsible for degenerative myelopathy in more than 100 different dog breeds; the splice donor site mutation responsible for primary lens luxation in several terrier breeds; the missense mutation responsible for neonatal encephalopathy in Standard Poodles; and the deletion responsible for Fanconi syndrome in Basenjis which has enabled breeders to eliminate this fatal condition from the breed.

Speaking about his award, Associate Professor Gary Johnson said: “This is far and away the most prestigious award I have received in my 76 years and it is doubtful that anything will come close in the future. I would like the prize money to be donated to the University of Missouri so that we can continue to identify the molecular genetic causes for heritable canine diseases.”

Adrian Baez-Ortega, awarded £10,000 for the Postgraduate Student Inspiration Award – Adrian received the Postgraduate Student Inspiration Award to help further his research into the evolution of canine transmissible venereal tumours (CTVT), a condition that has infected domestic dogs for the past 8,000 years and is found in around 100 countries worldwide.

As part of his research, Adrian has developed a computational approach which identifies the exact genes that are active in biopsy samples taken from tumours, from more than 40 countries. This is likely to have fundamental importance in developing new methods for treating this disease.

After winning the award, Adrian commented: “I feel immensely honoured to have been selected for this award.

"Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumour is a particularly nasty and painful cancer, normally associated with free-roaming or street dogs, where it is spread through mating. I am really glad the award funds will allow me to gain more knowledge about how CTVT interacts with each tumour’s host dog and which genes allow CTVT to systemically escape the immune system of infected dogs, in the hope that better understanding might lead to better treatment of this disease.”

Nivan Mamak, awarded £5,000 for the Undergraduate Student Inspiration Award – Nivan received the Undergraduate Student Inspiration Award for her current work investigating paroxysmal dyskinesia, a genetic disorder in golden retrievers which causes abnormal spasmodic movements of the hind limbs which can be mistaken for epileptic seizures.

As part of this work, Nivan learned advanced computer programming methods as well as the techniques involved in the extraction, purification and analysis of canine DNA samples.

After winning the award, Nivan said, “Winning this award means everything. The prestige and honour of the award means that my hard work over the past nine months has been recognised and appreciated. It encourages me to continue my work and keep contributing to this field.

“It is such a huge boost for my confidence and means a huge leap forward to where I want to be in the future.”

Liz Branscombe, from Bedford in Bedfordshire,awarded £1,000 for the Breed Health Co-ordinator Award – The recipient of the International Canine Health Award’s Breed Health Coordinator of the Year, was recognised for her hard work educating breeders and owners about the health of the Flat-Coated Retriever, after 33 years dedicated to the breed. She was awarded £1,000 to continue her longstanding efforts into the future health of the breed.

Liz is a registered veterinary nurse and as part of her role as Breed Health Coordinator, Liz has worked closely with the Kennel Club health team to help establish a mentorship scheme that allows experienced breed health advisors to pass on their understanding of dog health and genetics to a new generation.

In 2018, Liz played a key role in the development and promotion of the Kennel Club’s breed health and conservation plan, working with different breed organisations to complete the resulting action plan which will drive continual health improvements in the breed. She has also been involved with various initiatives that will benefit the health of pedigree dogs, such as the cause of death register which aims to establish an online source of information on the major health issues affecting Flat-Coated Retrievers.

After receiving the award, Liz said: “This award is recognition not only for what I do as Breed Health Coordinator, but also in recognition of the contribution that the Flat-Coated Retriever Society health committee and health representatives from the other breed organisations make towards promoting our breed health initiatives.”

Professor Steve Dean, chairman of trustees of the Kennel Club Charitable Trust, which runs the International Canine Health Awards, said: “We are inspired to award these five talented professionals for their hard work and dedication into improving canine health and welfare.

“These people have demonstrated their commitment to increasing our knowledge and understanding of canine diseases and thoroughly deserve the awards they have been honoured with today. We want to thank them for their contribution to improving dog health, they are truly an inspiration.”

Vernon Hill, Founder and Chairman of Metro Bank, and Shirley Hill, whose foundation underwrites the awards commented: “Congratulations to all the 2019 International Canine Health Award winners. It is now the premier, global veterinary award. We are pleased to recognise such talented and inspirational individuals that work tirelessly to improve the health and welfare of canines and humans alike, all across the world.”

Read more information on the International Canine Health Awards.