First total knee-replacement surgery restores young dog’s active life at Cornell

jake-copy_000James Gillette has two passions: hunting and his dog. In an effort to spend time with both, he has dedicated years to training Jake, his chocolate lab, how to retrieve game. Often described as inseparable, Gillette and Jake were just as likely to be wandering through wetlands as they were to be at home until travesty hit both.

In the summer of 2010, Gillette fell so ill that when Jake ran in front of a truck and fractured his knee, it was several weeks before Gillette was well enough to get Jake to a veterinarian. When Jake later arrived at the Cornell University Hospital for Animals (CUHA), he was unable to put any weight on the leg and it looked like it might have to be amputated.
In a first-ever surgery at Cornell, Assistant Professor of Surgery Dr. Ursula Krotscheck and an orthopedic surgeon from Ohio State University led a team of CUHA residents in a total knee replacement surgery, a relatively novel procedure never before performed at Cornell. The surgery team removed pieces of bone around Jake’s knee and constructed components to recreate the joint, giving Jake a second chance at an active life.

jakedog055-copySoon after the surgery in Spring 2011, Jake walked home by Gillette’s side using all four legs.

“Jake has recovered extremely well from what in most cases would have been a crippling injury,” said Krotscheck. “We are one of only five teaching hospitals that have performed this procedure. Our team and Jake’s resilience all contributed to making our first canine knee replacement a success.”

Now a year post-surgery, Jake recently passed his first anniversary check-up with flying colors.

“Look at him run!” said Gillette as he tossed Jake’s favorite toy, spurring the eager retriever into a full sprint. “He’s happy as ever and his leg is like new. Before the surgery he wasn’t using it at all. Now we’re playing and hunting together again.”



College of Veterinary Medicine News

First discovery of cells expelling mitochondria uncovers newfound survival tactic

An ancient union between cell and organelle has shown the first sign of fracture, challenging common conceptions of a primordial partnership all multicellular organisms rely on to live. Cornell researchers have recorded the first direct evidence of cells expelling intact mitochondria, the cellular machinery responsible for energy production.

AAAmitochondria B
An illustrated mitochondrion

Malfunctioning mitochondria produce free-radicals that damage cells, contributing to aging, mitochondrial myopathies, and disorders ranging from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and dementia to Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. The newfound breakup behaviour, described in Mitochondrion 2011 Nov.11(6), may be an early cell-survival strategy to escape the toxic effects of damaged mitochondria.

“It is very surprising to see living cells actively jettisoning vital parts of themselves,” said Dr. Theodore Clark, immunologist at the College of Veterinary Medicine. “This is the first time full mitochondria have been found outside cells and it may account for 15 years’ worth of unexplained data showing mitochondrial DNA and protein in extracellular spaces. We think these cells’ behaviour reveals a newfound survival tactic deeply rooted in evolution.”

Today’s mitochondria evolved from freewheeling bacteria that settled down in other cells two billion years ago. In exchange for food and shelter, the bacteria helped cells break nutrients into energy. These helpful tenants became modern mitochondria: the power-plants inside all cells of nearly every animal, plant, fungus, and protozoan.

Yet domestic disputes over cellular housekeeping may spur divorce, according to findings from Clark’s lab showing mitochondria moving out.

Graduate student Yelena Bisharyan discovered this while studying an unrelated phenomenon: escape stunts of the fish parasite Ichthyophthirius multifiliis. Clark’s lab had observed these parasitic protozoa avoiding destruction by shaking off attacking antibodies and exiting their hosts and wanted to see how they escaped.

“Attacking antibodies bind to the parasite’s cell surface,” said Clark. “We suspected that when antibodies attach, the parasite can shed them by breaking off its surface proteins – sort of like a lizard shedding its tail.”

tetrehymena 2
Tetrahymena, a protozoan, sheds proteins and mitochondria in response to attacking antibodies

Applying antibodies to parasites in culture, Bisharyan observed the reactions of Ichtyophthirius and Tetrahymena, another ciliated protozoan used as a model system to study fundamental biological principles across species.

Using negative staining and electron microscopy techniques, Bisharyan recorded parasites sacrificing their surface proteins to rid themselves of attached antibodies. Yet her images also captured something completely unexpected: intact and fragmented mitochondria coming out of the parasite’s cells.

This surprising finding won Bisharyan an invitation to present at one of the 2011 Gordon Research Conferences, a prestigious international forum showcasing major discoveries across scientific fields.

“Mitochondria experts were very excited to see this,” said Clark. “Over the past 15 years several papers have reported mitochondrial DNA and proteins floating outside mammalian cells. No one knew how or why they got there. What we’ve found in protozoa may help explain similar processes in mammals.”

Mitochondria (m) are pushed to the surface and jettisoned from the cell

mitochondria shed
Mitochondria (red) discovered outside cells

Certain cellular stressors can trigger mitochondrial expulsion, according to Bisharyan’s study. In protozoa, for example, not only antibodies but also heat shock can induce this effect. These stressors elevate calcium levels within the cell, possibly damaging mitochondria and causing them to produce toxic free-radicals.

“Our hypothesis is that mitochondria become poisoned and these protozoa have found a way to rid themselves of the damaged powerplants before they can cause further harm,” said Clark. “We think their behaviour reveals an early adaption to cellular stress that other species may share.”

Mammals and fish parasites may bear little family resemblance these days, but a common ancestor may have equipped both with emergency mitochondria-removal systems. Understanding this process could illuminate new approaches to reducing mitochondria-induced damage in humans and other animals.


Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine news

Molecular messenging

From molecular blueprints to bacterial cities, Holger Sondermann explores biological architecture

What do sink scum, dental plaque, and streambed slime have in common? They are all biofilms, billions of bacteria banded together into a resilient community. Beyond clogging your drain, these colonies can turn equipment such as catheters, implants, and heart valves into biomedical hazards. When growing inside the body, biofilms can cause infectious diseases affecting urinary tracts infections, gingivitis, listeriosis in dairy cattle, and the infections associated with the deadly incurable lung disease cystic fibrosis.

But moving from solo life to social life requires communication. Holger Sondermann, structural biologist and student of cellular communication pathways, was determined to find out how Bacteria organize.

“Biofilms cause the majority of all chronic infectious diseases,” said Sondermann. “Once formed, they are extremely difficult to disperse. Knowing how these bacteria aggregate will help us find ways to stop them, but there was a void of information with regard to their signaling mechanisms.”

What happens when a lone bacterium decides it’s had enough of the single’s scene? Like any good Facebook user, it sends out friend requests. Discovering a social networking tool much like those we use online, Sondermann found how bacteria form biofilms by sending invitations to their neighbors. A receptor protein called VpsT accepts the request, and prepares the individual for community life.

“The next step is learning to modulate this pathway,” said Sondermann. “This could inform hospital instrument design, guiding the creation of materials that repel biofilm formation. Understanding how they grow will be crucial in developing future therapies to disperse biofilms and treat chronic infectious diseases. In the case of bovine Listeria infections, understanding these mechanisms could help improve food safety.”

Unveiling such molecular machinery requires probing proteins at the most basic level to uncover their structure. In his second line of research, Sondermann seeks the biophysical blueprints of cell signaling proteins in the brain.

“When they work right, these proteins help telling nerves what to do. When they don’t, they are associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as paraplegias, neuropathies, schizophrenia, and Huntingtons,” said Sondermann. “Our goal is to find how they are normally built in order to see what physically changes when their mutations lead to neurological diseases. Seeing these differences shows us what is physically going wrong, and may lead to better diagnostic tools for neurological disorders.”

A 2008 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences and Robert N. Noyes Assistant Professor in Life Science and Technology, Sondermann received tenure in November 2010.

“I hope to continue our lab’s work while expanding our collaborations,” said Sondermann. “We have partnered with faculty at the Dartmouth Medical School and University of California, Santa Cruz on the biofilm project, using complementary approaches and exchanging new knowledge.  I also hope to intensify my interactions with colleagues in the College of Veterinary Medicine who are interested in infectious diseases, to explore how our research program can fit into the broader mission of the college to improve health across species.”


‘Scopes Magazine, Summer 2011

Customer service from start to finish

Customer service from start to finish

WendyEnglishClient Service Manager helps clients through their Hospital experience.

Pet paraphernalia from grateful clients decks the walls of the Client Service Manager’s office at the Cornell University Hospital for Animals. Surrounded by personalized thank you cards and photographs of former patients, Wendy English works around the clock to serve our clients’ needs. As the Hospital’s Client Services Manager, she provides clear communication, counseling for critical financial decisions, and a positive working environment for all around her.

“Good customer service gets clients in the door, keeps them happy, and keeps them coming back,” said English, who began working in the Hospital’s phone room 22 years ago. There she learned the inner workings of the Hospital, the value of excellent customer service, and the need for teamwork.

“Customer service is not just being nice on the phone,” said English. “It involves everyone you work with, from students to coworkers to clients. Every interaction counts. One person alone can’t run a hospital. I like the sports team analogy: it doesn’t matter who’s the owner and who’s the coach and who’s playing what position: everyone needs to work together to win.”

Grounded by firm philosophies and a natural talent for customer service, English rose through the ranks and now oversees 19 employees across the Hospital’s key operational units. From admissions and scheduling to discharge and billing, and all the issues that arise in between, English is there to help, ensuring a positive client experience.

“From start to finish we’re here to serve the clients,” said English. “I work to keep them informed about the status of their animals and to understand their options in choosing and financing care. I speak to every clinician every day about what’s happening with their cases. This helps us keep every case within its estimated cost, update the estimate if the situation changes, and make sure the client remains informed.”

Pet owners often face tough choices and have to weigh conflicting responsibilities. If a client can’t afford care for a pet, English gets involved. “Say you’re a working mother with debt, a husband on disability, and three kids to feed, and then the dog breaks its leg. Do you pay a couple thousand for surgery or do you choose to amputate for lesser cost? Do you pay upfront or apply for care credit? Often people need someone to sit down and talk them through their options. I do a lot of client counseling, I listen to their situations, help list pros and cons, and outline their options.”

Cash-strapped clients seeking financial assistance for pet care can apply to the Hospital’s Patient Assistance Fund. English handles a steady influx of applications and determines, with Hospital Director and Financial Director, who is eligible for support.

English is on call 24-7, every day of the year, and regularly fields calls at hours most people would balk at. “I don’t have free time,” she laughs. “I’ve always been the type of person needing something to do. I can’t sit still for long and hate being bored. I thrive under pressure, I like it. I like the responsibility of knowing that clients and staff clinicians can think ‘I’ll call Wendy; she’ll know what to do.’ I love helping clients and getting them to leave thinking ‘those people are so nice; they really care.’”

Weekends find English in the mud of WNYOA race tracks, where her college-aged son races quads. “I work in his pit crew, down in the trenches, gassing him up, changing his splattered goggles. Some Sundays I’m out there from 5am to 8pm.”

Even mired in muddy trenches on a long Sunday, English will faithfully answer the phone, always happy to help a client in need.

Hospital’s new horse will save patients’ lives


Cornell University Hospital for Animals (CUHA) welcomes its newest permanent working animal, Mike the horse. Mike is a huge 9-year old Belgian weighing over 2000 lbs. His job involves a lot of time off lounging outside. But a few times a year when emergencies strike, Mike will play a key part in saving horse’s lives.

“He was originally an athlete, pulling weights for sport,” said Kalli Anderson, veterinary technician at the Equine and Farm Animal Hospital. “But he was performing poorly, not eating much, and losing weight. His owners brought him to us on March 16, 2010 to find out why. We discovered he had arthritis in his front feet. The pain was probably hurting his appetite.”

The diagnosis put an end to his sport career, but Mike’s visit to CUHA proved to be the beginning of a new career helping the Hospital’s equine patients for years to come. When Mike’s bloodwork revealed that he had the right credentials for the job, the Hospital bought him as its new equine blood donor.

zJoan, the hospital’s former blood donor horse, was 28, and hospital staff had been looking hard to find a good replacement. But horse blood types are even more complex than human blood types, and the search was proving fruitless until Mike came along.

“We were testing blood from horses from the equine park and research projects for years, hoping to find a good donor, but nothing was coming up. “When Mike came in, we got permission to test him. Draft horses have good antibodies, so we were hopeful,” said Anderson. “Mike turned out to fit the bill.”

“He’s still getting used to us, he internalizes and snorts a lot, he’s working through his fears,” said Anderson. “He’s a quiet horse, easy to manage and good for students to learn on.”

You can visit Mike outside most days outside behind C-Barn.; April 24, 2011

Clinical pathology resident receives grant to study blood clotting

vClinical Pathology resident Dr. Nora Springer received a $2500 research award from the American Society for Veterinary Clinical Pathology (ASVCP) in March 2011. For the past three years, ASVCP has given one “Share the Future” research award per year, based on the quality of the candidate’s written proposal and the potential of the project to expand the knowledge base in veterinary clinical pathology. The grants range from $1,000 to $2,500, and are used to support new research by clinical pathology residents and graduate students.

Springer will use her award to investigate how tiny particles shed from platelets in the blood can lead to blood clots and thrombotic diseases in horses. She hopes to develop tests that will detect developing problems and help prevent thrombosis. Every cell in the body sheds microparticles, and those derived from platelets are the most common kind in the blood. These platelet-derived microparticles encourage blood to coagulate, and if enough accumulate they can form clots in blood vessels that obstruct blood flow, leading to thrombotic diseases in both horses and humans.

“Horses are at risk for thrombosis with inflammatory diseases, some of which are quite common, such as colic. The onset of thrombosis can drastically alter the clinical course of the disease and result in longer hospitalization times or death,” said Springer. “Unfortunately, Thrombosis is difficult to prevent because current tests can’t detect when a patient is at risk. Identifying at-risk patients before symptoms emerge is essential to guide therapy and minimize these diseases. I aim to develop new testing methods using bead-based flow cytometry that will count platelet-derived microparticles in equine blood and plasma, and to determine how these microparticles influence thrombosis.”

These new tests may allow clinicians to detect and predict thrombosis in patients, and develop treatments or prevention plans to stop the onset of blood-clotting disease.


Lifetime achievement award for contributions to poultry health

SchatTwin passions for veterinary research and international development work propelled Dr. Karel “Ton” Schat through a far-reaching career in avian virology and immunology. This past October, friends and colleagues surprised Schat with a unique award at the 5th International Workshop on the Molecular Pathogenesis of Marek’s Disease Virus in Athens, Georgia.

The plaque reads: “in recognition of outstanding research and contributions to poultry health,” commemorating contributions that have spanned flocks and nations around the world and summarizing the adventures and discoveries that have shaped Schat’s career.

“This award is a fitting capstone to Ton’s scientific career,” said Dr. Avery August, chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology to which Schat belongs after 32 years of teaching and research at the College of Veterinary Medicine. “I believe that it illustrates the esteem with which his colleagues view him and his work in avian health research, particular his work on Marek’s disease. The department is very proud to have someone of this caliber amongst our faculty.”

A dual degree professor, Schat earned his DVM from the State University in Utrecht, Holland, in 1972, and spent several years exercising his enthusiasm for health research and international development work before earning his PHD from Cornell in 1978. “I knew I wanted to do projects in international development before going on to graduate school,” Schat said, “so during my final year in veterinary school I got a fellowship to spend five months in northern Nigeria researching bacteriological causes of infertility in Fulani cattle. I really enjoyed the work and interacting with the people.”

The experience fueled his international interests, which brought him to Mexico where he met the man who would launch the rest of his career. “The Dutch government hired me to help set up a laboratory in Mexico, researching Marek’s disease,” recalled Schat. “I took six weeks of Spanish and spent a few months learning how to culture cells and grow viruses. Then off I went.”

awardSchat helped get a new laboratory off the ground, trained Mexican counterparts in basic research skills, and conducted his own research on Marek’s disease in chickens. While working in Mexico, Schat met his future mentor, Dr. Bruce Calnek, an eminent poultry professor at Cornell studying Marek’s disease. “He invited me to join his lab at Cornell as a graduate student. When my job in Mexico ended, I came here and I’ve been based here every since,” said Schat.

Early in his graduate career, Schat met Dr. Randy Cole, who had a flock of 28-week-old chickens in full production and free of Marek’s disease on Game Farm Road near campus. Schat took blood samples from the birds and discovered within them a new type of Marek’s disease virus. He used this to develop the SB-1 vaccine for Marek’s disease, dubbed by Schat himself. The widespread vaccine continues to prevent disease in countless chickens, ensuring the health of poultry and its consumers.

After making his mark on Marek’s disease, Schat has continued avian virology research to this day as faculty in the College of Veterinary Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology and unit director for avian facilities and research. He has maintained a focus in avian virology, and more recently in chicken infectious anemia virus. In 2006 Schat began making annual pilgrimages to Australia to study the pathogenesis of avian influenza virus in a specialized high-containment disease center. There he works with a mutated strain of the virus taken from an infected human, in research that could have a direct impact on human health.

Schat has attended every one of the eight Marek’s disease symposia that have occurred since they began in 1978 and played important roles in orchestrating several of them. He has attended each of the five workshops for the molecular pathogenesis of Marek’s disease since they began in 2005, and the last such workshop gave him a surprise. “They asked me to present a paper for this meeting, so I arranged to fly down for the fifth time, expecting to give a talk. The award presentation came as a complete surprise. I have worked with and befriended many of the people who come to these meetings and work on these issues, and it was an honor to be recognized by them.”
The lifetime achievement award joins four other awards given to Schat for his work in poultry health. He and fellow College faculty Dr. Doug Antczak won the first-ever Beecham Award for Research Excellence in 1986, a prestigious award for young investigators in their first six years after post-doc work. That year proved particularly fruitful for Schat, who also won the Upjohn Achievement Award for distinguished contributions in avian medicine.

The year after, Schat received another, particularly meaningful award, the Bart Rispens Research Award in recognition of an outstanding research contribution in the field of avian pathology, from the World Veterinary Poultry Association. It was named after Dr. Bart Rispens, who first taught Schat about Marek’s disease and how to culture viruses. Schat became chair of the award committee the following year.

He later received the Pfizer Award for Excellence in Poultry Research at the 136th Annual Convention of the AVMA in New Orleans, July 1999, and the Merck Award for Achievement in Poultry Science at the 98th Annual meeting of the Poultry Science Association in Auburn, August 2005. The fifth and latest in this series of awards “in recognition of outstanding research and contributions to poultry health” honors Schat’s legacy of accomplishments in his field.…
World Poultry News, January 18, 2011…
Poultry Production News, January 21, 2011

Lead stem cell researchers rally at 3rd Annual Stem Cell Symposium

StemcellResearch pioneers across the nation are working to unlock the vast hidden potential of stem cells, the body’s building blocks with the power to transform into nearly any kind of cell. This year leading investigators from top institutions converged in Ithaca to present their research, exchange ideas, and discuss the wide frontier of stem cell research at Cornell University’s Third Annual Stem Cell Symposium.

Speakers from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and the University of British Columbia joined faculty and students from Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and other institutions on October 30, 2010 at the Alice Statler Auditorium for an intensive day of presentations, posters, and discussion. The event included three lecture sessions and a poster competition for students and post-docs offering prizes of up to $1,000 to the three best presentations. Over 180 people attended, including faculty from the College of Veterinary Medicine, members of their labs, researchers from outside institutions, and industry scientists, collectively embodying the symposium’s goals to stimulate exchange between researchers inside and outside Cornell, enhance interactions within Cornell, and promote stem cell research and education.

“The symposium represents a great opportunity to foster cross-disciplinary interactions among researchers working on stem-cell-related problems,” noted Dr. Nikitin, Professor of Pathology in the College’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, and head of the Stem Cell program at Cornell. “This encompasses different scientific areas ranging from basic biology to biomedical engineering to veterinary and human medicine. It is also a great forum to attract new researchers and cross-pollinate ideas in this exciting field.”

Samantha Palmaccio, senior undergraduate student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, received the first place award for $1000 for best poster presentation. “My project revolves around the Cancer Stem Cell Hypothesis, the theory that a very small population of cells with stem cell characteristics exist in cancer tumors,” says Palmaccio, who conducted the study in the lab of Dr. Nikitin.

“Cancer Stem Cells can resist traditional cancer therapies, so although tumors might initially regress after treatment, if only a few of these cells survive they can completely regenerate the tumor. My work looks at a pathway to potentially regulate Cancer Stem Cells, which if manipulated can also be used to kill them. We’re hoping to find ways to target all cancer cells in a tumor for a longer lasting, more effective treatment.

“I think research that has the potential to actually help individuals in a clinically relevant way is the most rewarding work you can do,” says Palmaccio, who plans to begin medical school next fall. “Working in Dr. Nikitin’s lab has been a great opportunity to learn the very latest in cancer research.”

The second award ($600) went to Ying Zhang (Tudorita Tumbar Lab) in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics for his presentation on the role of GATA6 in progenitor cell survival, proliferation and differentiation in mouse skin epithelium. The third award ($400) went to Bo Ri Seo (Claudia Fischbach-Teschl Lab) in the Department of Biomedical Engineering for her work on innate potential of obesity-associated adipose stromal cells in breast tumor stiffness. The prize money will support training activities, purchase of lab reagents, specialty books or computers, and travel to scientific conferences on stem cell research. The three winners also had the opportunity to attend dinner with the symposium speakers.

The three lecture sessions each centered on a different area of stem cell research. The first featured embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells, which have the greatest potential to become any kind of cell. Dr. Rick Young from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT spoke about his research on the factors influencing how genes program embryonic stem cells differentiation. Dr. Angela Christiano of Columbia University’s Center for Human Genetics followed with a talk on using adult stem cells to form keratinocytes: cells that make up the skin, hair, nails, and mucus linings in the esophagus and mouth.

The second session focused on the use of stem cells from adult tissues. Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Amy Wagers spoke on the use of skeletal muscle stem cells to repair muscle damage and treat disease. Dr. Peter Lansdorp of the University of British Columbia Cancer Research Centre spoke about non-random segregation of sister chromatids, which may represent a key feature of stem cell division.

The relationship between stem cells and cancer provided the locus of the last session, featuring Cornell’s Nikitin and Dr. Julien Sage of Stanford University School of Medicine. In his talk Nikitin overviewed applications of genetically modified mice to address the role of stem cell compartments in cancer formation. He also discussed the promise of microRNAs for developing therapeutics targeting stem cell properties of cancer cells. Sage spoke about role of tumor suppressor genes of retinoblastoma family in adult stem cells and shown how abrogation of cell regulation provided by these genes may lead to cancer.

In just three years the annual symposium has already established a history of garnering a rich diversity of contributors. Past presenters hailed from Harvard, Yale, University of Washington, Baylor College of Medicine, and many of the top medical and cancer research institutes. Topics covered have included the mechanisms by which stem cells regulate and renew themselves, the unique characteristics and uses of adult tissue stem cells derived from hair, skin, lungs, mammary glands, and brains, and the application of stem cells in creating and repairing tissues.

The greatest potential of stem cells lies not only in their latent transformative powers, but in their myriad applications to human and animal medicine. Stem cell research may have a major impact in understanding and preventing cancer and birth defects, treating diseases such as Parkinsons, diabetes, heart problems, and arthritis, and handling injuries to almost any part of the body. Cross-pollination of ideas and discoveries will help the scientific and medical communities move towards these goals. Cornell’s Stem Cell Research Program will continue to sponsor activities including symposiums, stem cell seminars, and research progress reports, all of which will help make these valuable exchanges possible.

Samantha Palmaccio ’11 (left) and Andrea Flesken-Nikitin
(right) near their award-winning poster.

Aquatic specialists apply deadly fish virus research to real world problems

BowserFish health specialist Dr. Paul Bowser of Cornell’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology recently received his third award in the last four years. Bowser and his collaborator, New York Sea Grant Fisheries Specialist Dave MacNeill, accepted an award for Extension and other Outreach Efforts after using recent research results on Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia Virus to educate the public and promote environmental stewardship. The Sea Grant Association bestowed its first “Research to Application Award” on October 20th 2010, honoring the duo’s successful and continued application of SGA-funded research to help solve problems in the real world.

An extension of the congressional National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program, the Sea Grant program promotes coastal stewardship by supporting relevant research, education, and extension programs at universities in every state touching a coast or a Great Lake. Since returning to Cornell as faculty in 1985, Dr. Paul Bowser ’70, B.S., has received continual funding from New York’s Sea Grant program for his work in the field of aquatic animal medicine. “These grants are hard to get,” says department chair Dr. Avery August, “but Dr. Bowser has gotten eight of them and put them to good use. An award like this highlights how our interdisciplinary programs and faculty can partner with colleagues outside of Cornell and reach out to wider communities.”

The researchers’ fish disease expertise proved particularly relevant when Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia Virus (VHSV) first appeared in the Northeast in 2005. The foreign animal disease has since been found in every Great Lake and several of its subsidiary water systems, devastating wild fish populations. Funded by the New York Sea Grant Program and other sources, Bowser and MacNeill were involved with some of the premiere research and outreach initiatives on the epidemic. While it does not affect humans, the virus causes deadly hemorrhaging and anemia in fish, and strains of the virus in Europe have wreaked havoc on rainbow trout populations across the pond. So far the disease has not infected aquaculture on this continent, but it has already been found in 28 different North American freshwater species of wild fish.

“The strain we’re dealing with in North America is different from that found in Europe and does not appear to affect rainbow trout,” says Bowser, “but it does infect other important species such as muskellunge, yellow perch, largemouth bass, and various other members of the sunfish family; all of which are prized in sport-fishing.” While the virus infects only fish, it may prove equally dangerous to the sport-fishing industry, which feeds $1.4 billion a year to New York State’s economy and generates nearly $4.2 billion a year across the Great Lakes Basin. “That’s people going fishing, buying gear, paying guides, spending money at restaurants and motels,” says Bowser. “It’s a huge economic entity. We hope to minimize the impact of VHSV on the economy and the environment.”

After a series of major mortalities following the outbreak, the virus seems to have quieted down since 2008, and Bowser’s team is trying to figure out why. “We may be seeing a classic example of what happens when a new pathogen enters a new area. When it first arrives, the fish have never seen it before, and many become severely affected. As time goes on, the population grows more accustomed to the virus.” But the threat is far from over, and the sleeping virus remains in the population.

“You could almost compare it to what happens with the Flu virus,” says Bowser. “Every 20 years or so we have a major shift in the genetic makeup of the influenza virus. In that particular year, a lot of people get severely sick from the new strain. As time goes on, the population becomes more accustomed to the new influenza virus, until the virus mutates and the cycle starts again.” Both the VHSV and the influenza virus are RNA viruses. Lacking the enzymes that proof-read replication in DNA viruses, RNA viruses tend to make copying mistakes, causing high rates of mutation. “So far the various VHSV isolates we’ve found have been very similar to those first found in the Great Lakes in 2005. They have not yet initiated a major genetic change, but we predict that might eventually occur.”

Environmental stressors probably also contributed to the virus’s initial impact during its first three years. Warm springtime temperatures in 2005, 2006, and 2007 may have been a blessing to winter-bound humans, but coldblooded fish were not so lucky. Preferring a stable environment, fish find rapid change hard, especially changes in temperature. “Springtime is a bad time for fish,” says Bowser. “It’s when we see the highest mortalities from a wide variety of diseases in both aquaculture and in the wild. So we have many fish pouring their resources into springtime spawning while dealing with rapid temperature changes, and in comes a new pathogen they’ve never seen before. It’s the perfect storm.”

Cooler springtime temperatures in 2008, 2009, and 2010 combined with growing tolerance in fish populations may have helped lessen the disease’s impact, but as Bowser says, “it’s important to realize the virus is still there.” Over the past five years the Aquatic Animal Health Program, which Bowser coordinates has conducted surveillance efforts, collecting and testing fish all over the Great Lakes. They have found that at least some of the fish collected from many locations are still carrying the virus. “If you go out without a coat on in the winter, you’ll probably get a cold. There are always viruses present in the environment, but the stress to your immune system allows those you carry to act up. It’s the same with fish. If we have a warm spring this year, if the virus mutates, if anything rocks the boat, we might see another outbreak.”

Yet ecological factors are only part of the equation. Human activity plays a major part in aquatic health, and that is the element of Bowser’s work that the “Research to Application Award” seeks to recognize. In addition to their pioneering research on the outbreak, Bowser and MacNeill have spearheaded efforts to inform coastal users and stakeholders about the disease and what they can do to help. Dr. James Casey, a virologist and one of Bowser’s colleagues in the Aquatic Animal Health Program at Cornell developed quantitative RT-PCR method to detect the virus. This vastly improvement in detection capabilities has provided timely insight into the virus, its spread, and its impact on Great Lakes fisheries.

Dr. Casey joined Bowser and MacNeill in producing and disseminating informational materials about VHSV and how to limit its spread and minimize impact. The trio presented at New York State aquaculture workshops in 2009 and 2010 and demonstrated applicable bio-security measures developed by the Aquatic Animal Health Program for fish culturists, including methods of disinfection, containment, and prevention. In workshop evaluations, 100 percent of attendees indicated they would use the guidelines in their aquaculture facilities, and share them with others in the field.

Dr. Bowser has received several awards in the past few years, including the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Faculty Service in 2007, and the S.F. Snieszko Distinguished Service Award from the American Fisheries Society in 2009, honoring his career achievement and contributions to aquatic medicine. He will continue his work at the Aquatic Animal Health Program at Cornell, providing service to fish enthusiasts, aquaculture practitioners, and partnering with the New York State Department of Conservation fish pathology unit to investigate wild fish kills like those caused by VHSV.

“We’re keeping an eye on things,” says Dr. Bowser, who is already gearing up for next summer’s surveillance activities, during which his crew will collect and test fish across all the Great Lakes Basin for VHSV and other pathogens. “We can’t cure the virus, but we can learn as much as possible about it and keep people informed.”

A direct link

Trouble getting through to a specific doctor?  Not sure whom to contact about a particular need?  Having any sort of difficulty communicating with a Cornell veterinarian?  Kelly Skeval is the person to call.  She has recently been appointed Referring Veterinarian Coordinator, a new position dedicated to facilitating and improving relationships between Cornell’s Hospital for Animals and the referring veterinarians with whom it collaborates.


“CUHA offers a wealth of expertise and opportunities for partnership,” says Skeval.  “I’m here to support communication and integration with referring veterinarians in order to provide the best possible care to patients.  Veterinarians can come to me for troubleshooting or with any concerns regarding communication.”

In addition to facilitating live communication, Skeval examines communications systems already in place in order to improve them for maximum efficiency.  She has recently worked to implement a new streamlined fax system that gets information where it needs to be faster.  Faxes used to arrive at multiple locations, but now they all go to one line, saving time and reducing delivery error.


Skeval is uniquely suited for her role.  She has worked in veterinary hospitals since she was 14, earned her associates degree at Alfred State College, and worked as a veterinary technician for six years, including four years at Cornell.  Her dual experience in private practices and academia gives her insight into both worlds and opportunities for them to collaborate to offer the most appropriate medical care for the condition.  With her background as a veterinary technician, she can better understand cases and relevant terminology and can communicate clearly with veterinarians about their needs.


You can contact Skeval at the Hospital any time Monday through Friday, between 8:30 am and 5:00 pm with concerns or suggestions – anything Skeval says, from contacting a “scheduled-to-the-minute” doctor to finding the appropriate resources for a specific case.  Call the Hospital phone room at (607)253-3064 and ask to speak with Kelly Skeval.