A pioneering professor in veterinary molecular genetics, an internationally renowned professor in canine haematology and hereditary diseases, an MPhil student researching the pathophysiology of diabetes in dogs and a devoted Deerhound breed health coordinator have been announced as the winners of Europe’s most prestigious veterinary awards.
The International Canine Health Awards, which are organised by the Kennel Club Charitable Trust and underwritten by a major gift from Vernon and Shirley Hill of Metro Bank, highlight those individuals who go one step further to promote the health and wellbeing of dogs through their work in the world of veterinary science.
Whilst this year’s ceremony was unable to go ahead in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 winners have been awarded their respective prize money and invited to next year’s event to receive their commemorative plaques.
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. Nominations for the awards were judged by a distinguished international panel of influential veterinarians and scientific researchers.
Professor Dr Tosso Leeb, awarded £40,000 for the International Award
The 2020 recipient of the International Award was recognised for his expertise in veterinary molecular genetics, which has led to the formation of a world-class canine genetics research program in Bern, Switzerland.
Professor Leeb, who is Director of the Institute of Genetics of the Vetsuisse Faculty, also leads his own research group which is working tirelessly to identify the causative genetic variants for inherited diseases, the results of which have led to a large number of publications that are highly cited by veterinary clinicians and scientists alike. Furthermore, he has also developed many genetic tests that now allow the eradication of many hereditary diseases in dogs.
After hearing of his award, Professor Leeb said: “It is a great honour to receive this award, which recognises the impact of clinical genetic research for canine health and provides a huge motivation for me to intensify this line of research. It is immensely gratifying to see that the results of our research are valued by dog breeders and owners and help to advance breeding programs for healthier dogs.
“The award will directly enable us to investigate additional inherited diseases in dogs. Even more importantly, it will facilitate the acquisition of further research funds for health-related genetic research in dogs and will thus have a very significant and positive impact on our work.”
Professor Dr Urs Giger, awarded £10,000 for the Lifetime Achievement Award
The winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award received the award in recognition of his work, which spans across four decades and has been dedicated to the study of clinical haematology in dogs, hereditary diseases and genetic predispositions, and transfusions medicine, the results of which have helped impact Kennel Club testing among many breeds.
Many of Professor Giger’s investigations have involved the discovery of new disorders, the development of new specific diagnostics and the introduction of new and improved therapies in dogs. His studies have advanced clinical transfusion therapy and blood banking in dogs and helped make canine transfusion practical and safe. In addition, he has also been the lead investigator and PennGen Laboratory Director of the National Institutes of Health grant on Animal Models of Human Disease for the past three decades.
After receiving his award, Professor Giger said: “I am elated to be the 2020 ICHA Lifetime Achievement Awardee. The prestigious award should, however, recognise and honour my international veterinary collaborators and my many fellows and students who I had the pleasure to work with. I am very proud of them all and I could not have made so many contributions without them.
“Whilst I very recently officially retired from Penn, I will continue to research and aim for precision medicine in the diagnosis and management of hereditary and blood diseases, some of them breed-specific. This generous award will certainly facilitate future studies and thereby greatly contribute to canine health.”
Dr Valeria Bergomi, awarded £10,000 for the Postgraduate Student Inspiration Award
Dr Bergomi received the Postgraduate Student Inspiration Award to help further expand her research and work in canine diabetes and anatomic pathology.
Diabetes mellitus affects a large number of dogs and Valeria’s current project is mainly focused on identifying the immune cell population surrounding and infiltrating pancreatic islets in dogs, in order to hopefully advance targeted treatments that will prevent islet destruction. Dr Bergomi has already identified changes within the canine pancreas that will help to increase understanding in this area.
Following a PhD, Valeria plans to complete a residency in anatomic pathology in order to pursue a career as a pathologist.
After winning the award, Valeria commented: “I am incredibly proud of having won this award. It is definitely an amazing opportunity to further my research in the field of canine diabetes.
“I am hoping that the money will help with furthering our understanding of the pancreatic islet microenvironment and how this changes in diabetic patients. Canine diabetes is a huge problem in clinical practice, as it has a very significant impact on the welfare of affected animals. Although it can be reasonably controlled with insulin therapy and the course of the disease is well documented, there is very little knowledge regarding its pathogenesis. I am hoping that my work will elucidate that further, thus providing some potential new targets for treatment.”
Dr Sarah Helps 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 dedication and commitment to improving the health of the Deerhound, a breed she has been involved with for over 40 years. Her passion for the breed has seen her support veterinary research into dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in order to improve understanding, early diagnosis and prevention, and she initiated a longitudinal study into the prevalence of DCM in UK Deerhounds in 2015.
As part of this study, 99 Deerhounds were scanned and are being monitored throughout their lives, with the results of the study currently undergoing peer-review, in order to potentially form an official basis for future breed screening of Deerhounds. Early diagnosis means that treatment for heart disease can be started early, as well as enabling affected Deerhounds to be screened prior to breeding.
The money from the award will help to resource a geneticist and technician for further DNA development, as well as potentially subsidising further heart testing at future shows.
After receiving the award, Sarah said: “I am really excited to win this prestigious award. It is immensely satisfying after the years of hard work put in by me and my colleagues in the Deerhound Health Group, especially Emily Dutton, RCVS-recognised specialist in Cardiology who has been so helpful with our research.
“I very quickly fell in love with Deerhounds over 40 years ago because of their extraordinary grace and beauty, combined with great power and speed and their most generous loyal character. I feel particularly proud to have coordinated and assisted in the completion of the research project into heart disease affecting this wonderful breed, alongside Emily Dutton, and identifying the echocardiographic measurements in the Deerhound. The project has very much been a team effort and without the support of Deerhound owners, donations from the Deerhound Club and Bev Doyle, this heart study would never have been possible.”
Dr Andrew Higgins, Chairman of the ICHA panel and trustee of the Kennel Club Charitable Trust, which runs the awards, said: “We are delighted to recognise these four dedicated professionals for their passion and commitment into improving canine health and welfare.
“These winners have demonstrated their dedication to raising awareness, 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 emeritus of Metro Bank, and whose major gift underwrites the International Canine Health Awards, said: “Congratulations to all the 2020 International Canine Health Award winners. As the one of the largest global veterinary awards, we are pleased to recognise such inspirational individuals who are working tirelessly to improve the health and welfare of canines, all across the world.”