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A taste of research
  1. Hannah Johnson


Research plays a pivotal role in veterinary and human medicine, but is often overlooked as a career option. Dick Vet undergraduate Hannah Johnson undertook a summer research project to get a better idea of what is involved

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THE ‘Dick’ Vet's Research Track Committee organises research projects for veterinary students within the University of Edinburgh and its sister school, Colorado State University (CSU). One of the benefits of the schools' union in 2008 was to create funded student exchanges, offering the opportunity to carry out research projects and clinical rotations.

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I was offered the opportunity to learn more about opportunities in research at CSU, and spent eight weeks in a field I was keen to explore – clinical research in livestock – at its small ruminant comparative orthopedic lab (SRCOL). I had not previously considered the role of livestock as animal models. Sheep are excellent models for human orthopaedics, and medical companies around the world rely on the lab to trial cutting-edge therapies for human orthopaedic conditions.

Carrying out my project there provided a great opportunity to prepare for a career in research, but also combined aspects of practical clinical medicine and surgery.

SRCOL is led by Dr A. Simon Turner, a recent recipient of an AVMA award for research excellence. It is through his innovation and charisma that this advancement in clinical trial methods has been possible. He is supported by an enthusiastic and accomplished team of veterinary surgeons, technicians, an anaesthetist and a host of eager-to-learn pre-veterinary and veterinary students. To join this team was an honour and an extraordinary experience.

The day-to-day activities I was involved in ranged from postmortem examinations, CT scanning and radiography, blood sampling, assisting in surgery and anaesthesia, to general sheep husbandry. The team was incredibly efficient, which gave me ample opportunity to discover the basis behind the techniques being trialled.

I selected one ongoing project in order to learn how the lab was managed, and the extent of research required for a product to reach clinical trials.

The project I found most fascinating was based on groundbreaking research looking at a new treatment for degenerative diseases of the lower back. Degenerative disc disease and spondylolisthesis of the lumbar spine are associated with chronic pain in a large number of people.

The current ‘gold standard’ treatment is to carry out lumbar spinal arthrodesis with the use of autograft tissue; however, significant morbidity is associated with its harvest. Allograft has also been used, but with less success, as incomplete spinal fusion and resultant morbidity is more common. The most recent development has been the use of the growth factor bone morphogenetic protein 2 (BMP-2) to assist fusion.

Ovine models are used to determine the effectiveness of recombinant human platelet-derived growth factor, and it is hoped that it may become the new ‘gold standard’ method of treatment, decreasing the level of morbidity associated with surgery.

In my spare time, I had the opportunity to join the final-year students on their rotations in various departments, which gently eased me into a clinical mindset, in preparation for my clinical training at Edinburgh. I was met with a high input of fascinating and complicated cases: fitting prosthetic distal limbs to a frostbitten calf, acupuncture on a rodeo bull and witnessing radiotherapy on a wolf were some of the more memorable cases.

Overall, my time at CSU has allowed me to appreciate that research is practical and clinically relevant, with the additional benefit of advancing veterinary and medical knowledge.

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