|Every day, anxious pet owners arrive at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine's (VMRCVM) Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Blacksburg seeking human-quality healthcare for an important--albeit four-legged--family member.
And every day, trucks ramble along the highways and byways of rural Virginia, bringing modern veterinary medical care to pastures and paddocks and helping farmers improve their bottom lines.
Twenty-five years after its founding, the nation's only truly regional college of veterinary medicine has treated almost 1 million animals and trained about 2,000 veterinarians. While doing so, the VMRCVM has earned widespread recognition for raising the bar for quality animal healthcare and public health throughout the region.
"Because of the remarkable advancements we have made in treating companion animals, I think people still see the veterinarian as primarily an animal doctor," says Schurig, a native of Chile who earned graduate degrees in immunology from Cornell before being recruited in 1978 to help found the regional college. "But it is crucial that we build our programs and help people understand the critical connection between veterinary research and human health."
Perhaps less visible, however, are the college's research contributions, particularly in the area of infectious diseases. Several major vaccines have been developed in college laboratories, including one for hemorrhagic enteritis credited with saving the poultry industry hundreds of millions of dollars. Working in the Center for Molecular Medicine and Infectious Diseases, college Dean Gerhardt Schurig developed the RB-51 brucellosis vaccine, now used widely around the world. Most recently, X.J. Meng produced a commercial vaccine for PCV-2, a major infectious disease plaguing the global swine industry.
Current efforts to ratchet up the college's veterinary research programs come in the midst of growing national recognition of the perilous linkages between animal disease and human health and well-being.
The looming possibility of a human pandemic from "bird flu," bioterrorism threats in our post-Sept. 11 world, and growing food safety concerns have prompted prestigious groups, such as the National Academy of Sciences, to sound the alarm about a critical shortage of veterinary researchers in the nation.
Schurig believes that animal health has not been strategically addressed in the United States--or, for that matter, the world--but that things are changing. "From biomedical research to national security, veterinary medicine is becoming increasingly viewed as a mission-critical resource by the scientific community," he says.
Progress is being made in the VMRCVM. Funded research programs grew by 36 percent from 2005 to 2006 and National Institutes of Health (NIH) program support now comprises about half of the college's portfolio. Moreover, the college has recently been awarded two prestigious NIH training grants, a T32 and a T35; each is designed to boost the college's veterinary research and graduate education programs.
With their broad biomedical training and unique capacity to address the interconnected worlds of animal health, human health, and the environment, veterinarians bring special expertise to the laboratory and, increasingly, to policy-making circles in government agencies and private corporations, Schurig says.
The blueprint guiding the college's expanding research program is based upon "translational research," a model that brings together the efforts of biomedical scientists and clinical researchers in programs that rapidly solve real-world health problems--for animals and people.
Strategic partnerships and alliances, including the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences and private corporations, are another part of the plan, according to Schurig, who believes the VMRCVM is poised to play a catalyzing role in the growth of the university's future research activities. For example, a human-targeted biomechanical implant collaboratively developed by Virginia Tech engineers and Wake Forest University physicians could be tested first in canines that the VMRCVM treats in its clinical programs.
Much can be learned about human disease by studying spontaneous, or naturally occurring, disease in animals. For example, an article in the December 2006 edition of Scientific American details major progress in osteosarcoma and other cancer research that has resulted from the study of cancer in pet dogs.
"Our challenge is to build up our research programs in a way that advances the quality of our clinical programs and our capacity to serve veterinarians and their clients," says Schurig, who foresees the rapid emergence of a series of new diagnostic tests, treatments, and preventive measures for animals and people once the translational medicine programs are in place.
That people automatically think of "pet healthcare" when they hear the word "veterinarian" is no surprise. Consumer spending on pets will approach $39 billion in 2006, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. The $11 billion of that dedicated to veterinary services this year is expected to grow to about $13.5 billion by 2010. Yet the 3,000 veterinarians produced annually by America's 28 veterinary colleges are not meeting current demand, according to Schurig.
To help veterinary academe cope with increasing demand, the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges and the American Veterinary Medical Association have spent the past several years working for passage of the Veterinary Workforce Expansion Act, which would create about $1.5 billion in federal grants to increase infrastructure and programs at the nation’s veterinary colleges. The bill, however, has yet to gain the traction it needs in Congress.
Rapid change is evident in other sectors of veterinary medicine. About 80 percent of today's veterinarian students are female; just this year, in fact, the number of female veterinarians in practice surpassed the number of males, Schurig says. As well, corporate veterinary medicine is changing the historic "small-business" model of practice ownership, he adds.
This mosaic of sociological, technological, and economic change that defines the profession's current operating environment means that academic veterinary medicine must be especially agile, adaptive, and responsive in order to be successful, asserts Schurig.
Looking to the future, he recognizes that the college must identify resources to build about $60 million in new research and instructional space. And he knows that those resources will come from public and private resources and entrepreneurial partnerships.
For now, however, Schurig's gaze is focused on the present. "The complex interdependence of human and animal life on the planet today has created conditions where infectious diseases can have catastrophic effects on public health and agricultural economies," he warns. "It's time to pay attention."
Visit the the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine online at www.vetmed.vt.edu.
Jeffrey S. Douglas is the director of communications and public relations for the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.