1. Saving Lives by Fighting Infectious Diseases

When distinguished professor Saul Tzipori was recruited in 1991 to teach microbiology, there was no research staff or infrastructure on the Grafton campus for studying infectious diseases. “I was truly starting from scratch,” he recalled. “I had a part-time technician and not a single test tube.”But within eighteen months, Tzipori secured funding from NIH and USAID and started building an infectious-disease division. With investigators qualified to teach basic science—microbiology, parasitology, molecular biology, and immunology—the school could move students to Grafton. Tzipori, the Agnes Varis University Chair in Science and Society, chairs the 67-member Department of Infectious Disease and Global Health, which now occupies two laboratory buildings and the New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory, and has attracted some $150 million in research funding to date.

Here are some of the globe's most serious health threats that Cummings School’s scientists study.

Cryptosporidium An estimated 840,000 children under age 5 die from diarrheal disease every year—more than from measles, malaria, and AIDS combined. With support from the NIH, Tzipori and his colleagues, including assistant professor Abhineet Sheoran, are working to develop a vaccine for the cryptosporidium parasite using the research lines from his lab—the only one in the world that maintains the species most dangerous to humans. Meanwhile, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting the lab’s research, and Giovanni Widmer is studying microbial populations in the gut for clues about why some children can weather crypto infections.

Botulism Professor Charles B. Shoemaker researches more effective, less expensive ways to combat botulism, a bioterrorism threat to service-members and others. In 2010, he used antibodies in alpaca blood to develop a new antitoxin and later demonstrated that gene therapy could deliver the antitoxin (and confer vaccine-like protection). The work could lead to treatments for other diseases caused by bacteria, including those related to E. coli food poisoning, and the hospital-acquired superbug Clostridium difficile.

Schistosomiasis More than 200,000 people die from so-called snail fever each year around the world—a death toll second only to malaria—and even in survivors the infection can lead to such problems as stunted growth and reduced fertility. A lack of clean drinking water and adequate sanitation creates ideal conditions for the parasite, which is carried by freshwater snails. In order to better treat, or even prevent, the infection, professor Patrick J. Skelly and research associate professor Akram Da’darah are working to reveal how schistosome worms slip by the body’s defense system.

Tick-borne Disease If it’s causing alarming headlines, there’s a good chance professor Sam Telford is working on it. In addition to fighting Lyme disease by immunizing wild mice, Telford and Tufts colleagues also reported the first U.S. case of human B. miyamotoi infection, and plan to test genetic variants of Powassan virus to learn what’s driving an uptick in the rare but dangerous illness.

Influenza Professor Jonathan Runstadler and his team are on a mission to help protect the world from constantly evolving strains of influenza. They head out into the field to collect thousands of samples from birds and other animals. One day they hope to help develop a universal vaccine, as well as uncover what factors increase the flu’s pandemic potential.

Tuberculosis Once largely under control, this bacterial respiratory illness has come raging back, with as many as 1.7 million deaths each year. However, not everyone infected develops active disease, and assistant professor Gillian Beamer is trying to figure out why. The answer could inform a more effective vaccine, new antibiotics, and less-invasive diagnostics.

 

Anna Frazier

Anna Frazier, a veterinary assistant who trained at Tufts at Tech, checks on a dog at the Foster Hospital emergency room. Photo: Alonso Nichols

2. Training the Scientists and Clinicians of Tomorrow

When Tufts first launched its veterinary school in 1978 it didn’t have plans to build a hospital for small animals—no one believed many clients would travel to Grafton, Massachusetts. But that assumption didn’t linger long. In 1985, the school opened the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals. Originally built to handle 12,000 cases annually, the hospital now sees nearly 35,000 —it recently completed a $10 million renovation to increase its capacity and is one of the country’s three busiest veterinary teaching hospitals. “We were pleasantly surprised to find that it was not a struggle getting cases,” said Professor Emeritus Anthony Schwartz, who as chair of the Department of Surgery and associate dean led the committee that planned the hospital.

By expanding its capacity for clinical care, Cummings School also increased its ability to train the veterinarians of the future. The school decided the Foster Hospital would offer only referral and specialty services, not primary care, which meant it wouldn’t compete with nearby veterinary practices. It also meant students would get exceptional training on the most complex of clinical cases. Accredited in 15 areas of referral small-animal medicine, the Foster Hospital now offers one of the broadest ranges of specialties anywhere.

Meanwhile, 500 companion animals participate in clinical trials at Cummings School each year, with upwards of 30 studies enrolling patients at a given time. And because the school partners with local veterinarians to offer 24-hour emergency care, the school offers the largest training program in veterinary emergency and critical care in the country.

But the Foster Hospital is not the only way Cummings Veterinary Medical Center has evolved to offer the best in teaching and clinical care.

In 1981, the school opened the Hospital for Large Animals to diagnose and treat horses and other sizable animals, as well as bought a field-service practice in Woodstock, Connecticut. Just last year, the Hospital for Large Animals added an expansive equine sports-medicine complex, which includes an enclosed arena where equine vets evaluate horses in action. Meanwhile, Tufts Veterinary Field Service has grown from two veterinarians working from the backs of their trucks, to a team of ten farm-call clinicians based out of a 6,000-square-foot headquarters.

In 1982, Cummings School unveiled the Tufts Wildlife Clinic, the country’s first freestanding wildlife clinic at a veterinary school. Last year, its team of expert clinicians and students cared for a record 3,717 wild patients, including 1,629 mammals, 1,092 birds, and 196 reptiles and amphibians. The clinic has become an unparalleled resource for New England wildlife officials, emergency first responders, and the general public.

In 1998, Tufts purchased the Veterinary Treatment and Specialties practice in Walpole, Massachusetts, to create a satellite teaching clinic offering specialty medicine and overnight emergency care. And the school didn't stop there. In 2012, it broadened its community impact and enhanced the reach of its teaching by launching Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic. Based at Worcester Technical High School, Tufts at Tech provides primary veterinary care to pets of low-income clients, while training Cummings School and Worcester Tech students. In just five years, the clinic has treated more than 25,000 pets and helped teach 500 students, winning national recognition for its work. The first-of-its kind partnership already has inspired the launch of several similar programs around the country. That is called leading the way.

 

Jeff Mariner

3. Advancing Breakthroughs for All Species

For millennia, a highly contagious disease called rinderpest savaged the globe. It was almost 100-percent fatal in the cattle it infected, and millions of people dependent on their herds also died from starvation. But rinderpest was declared eradicated in 2011—only the second disease ever wiped off the Earth (the first was smallpox)—after a heat-stable vaccine developed by Cummings School veterinarian Jeffrey Mariner, V87 (above), was deployed throughout Africa by him, professor Albert Sollod, and other Tufts researchers. He and his colleagues are working to eradicate the viral disease peste des petits ruminants, a widespread killer of sheep and goats.

That’s the way it is at Cummings School: Clinicians, scientists, and educators work relentlessly to improve research and treatment, often collaborating with their counterparts in human medicine on such questions as, Can a gene-silencing therapy in development for ALS help dogs with a similar degenerative disease? These are some of the highlights.

Susan Cotter

Photo: Dave Willman

> Distinguished Professor Emerita Susan Cotter’s pioneering work on feline leukemia helped save the lives of millions of cats, and also led investigators to the revelation that a virus was behind a mysterious illness in humans that they’d come to call AIDS.

> Tufts veterinarians helped the biotech company Genzyme breed the first goats to produce a human pharmaceutical (for treating human heart attacks) in their milk.

> Professor Emeritus Nicholas Dodman’s research on drugs to manage compulsive behaviors in dogs led to Tufts patenting memantine, a new treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder in humans. Dodman and Tufts colleagues, together with researchers from Harvard, MIT, and the University of Massachusetts, also identified the first genetic mutation related to canine behavior: CDH2 in Doberman pinschers with compulsive behaviors.

Owl

Photo: Anna Miller

> At Tufts Wildlife Clinic, research by associate professor emeritus Mark Pokras, V84, on lead poisoning in loons resulted in several states banning lead fishing tackle. Studies by clinical assistant professor Maureen Murray, V03, on the risk to wildlife from anticoagulant rodenticides, was instrumental in the EPA’s decision to crack down on the poisons.

> When Karl Kraus was professor of surgery he assembled a team of engineers and surgeons to develop new devices for stabilizing orthopedic injuries in dogs and then founded the world’s largest veterinary orthopedic company.

Ticks

Photo: Kelvin Ma

> Tufts is one of only twenty or so academic centers in the National Cancer Institute’s Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium, a group dedicated to finding new ways to help humans and animals.

> The Henry and Lois Foster Hospital was part of a clinical trial of Tanovea, a drug being tested for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in humans, that led to it being only the third, FDA-approved oncology drug for exclusive use in dogs.

> The first diagnostic test for Lyme disease was developed by Tufts veterinary researchers Andrew Onderdonk, Robert Gilfillan, and Merle Weber. Their test for dogs would later be adapted for diagnosing Lyme in humans.

 

Chris Whittier

Chris Whittier, V97, director of the M.S. in conservation medicine program, leads a field activity with students.

4. Making a Difference Around the Globe

From the beginning, Cummings School has prepared graduates to practice veterinary medicine with a global perspective. It launched the International Veterinary Medicine (IVM) program in 1982 to advance agriculture in the developing world, and the program has evolved to encompass six areas of expertise, including conservation medicine and global health. Students now travel the world to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom—investigating tick-borne disease in Mozambique, studying a viral threat to wild Asian elephants at an Irish zoo, caring for underserved pets in the Dominican Republic, and more. Select students can also pursue advanced training to earn a postgraduate certificate in IVM.

The Tufts interdisciplinary approach also gives graduates a competitive advantage in studying diseases that can spread from animals to humans. “Each new outbreak has taught us something about how to work together across disciplines to attack the problem,” said research assistant professor Felicia Nutter, V93.

Cummings School has been a leader in an international partnership of universities training future health-care professionals. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Emerging Pandemic Threats program, research assistant professor Janetrix Hellen Amuguni, VG11, research professor Stanley G. Fenwick, and research associate professor Diafuka Saila-Ngita serve alongside Nutter as technical advisers to help “train the trainers” in more than a dozen infectious-disease hot spots around the world. They’ve helped develop two regional networks to ensure that universities in Africa and Southeast Asia are offering comprehensive training to address pandemics.

With the help of the World Organization for Animal Health, Cummings School also runs an exchange program with Chittagong Veterinary and Animal Sciences University in Bangladesh, to spur collaboration in teaching and research. Bengali students spend seven weeks a year in Grafton for classes and clinical rotations, and Tufts students study avian influenza, E. coli rotavirus in food animals, and other issues in Bangladesh. The exchange lets Bengali students improve veterinary medicine at home, and offers Cummings School’s students a rare opportunity to confront infectious diseases before they ever emerge stateside.

Degrees with a Global Focus

Cummings School has built on its D.V.M. program to offer several additional degrees preparing scientists for service around the world, including:

M.S. in Conservation Medicine
Through small-group learning and hands-on externships, students prepare to address environmental contamination, climate change, and other urgent, global issues.

M.S. in Infectious Disease and Global Health
Professionals train to handle the emergence of virulent infectious agents, antimicrobial resistance, bioterrorism, and other serious threats to human health.

D.V.M./Master of Public Health
This dual-degree program trains future experts in human public health, as well as veterinary practitioners and researchers.

D.V.M./Master of Arts
In this dual-degree program, students earn a DVM and one-year MA at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to prepare for international policy-making positions.

 

Lisa Freeman and Ida Sawosta

New Horizons assisted-living community resident Ida Sawosta plays with a corgi during a Tufts Paws for People visit from Professor Lisa Freeman, J86, V91, N96. Photo: Dominick Reuter

5. Investigating Our Relationships with Animals

What quality of life do we owe the animals we depend on for food or biomedical research? What happens when the best interests of wildlife and human residents collide? The drive to answer questions such as these have driven the curriculum since the veterinary school’s earliest days—and are part of the reason that New England is considered the cradle of the American animal-welfare movement.

In 1983, Tufts created the Center for Animals and Public Policy under the leadership of Director Andrew Rowan—now chief scientific officer of the Humane Society of the United States—to advance the study of human-animal relations. “The work of the center is based on the tenets that animal well-being matters, that animal and human well-being are linked, and that both are enhanced through improved understanding of human-animal relationships,” said Dean Deborah T. Kochevar. Since the M.S. in animals and public policy was first offered in 1995, the program has graduated more than 200 students armed to lead conversations about improving the lives of animals and people. This summer, the faculty of the center will hold a one-week course, open to the public, to examine some of the high-profile animal issues explored in the M.S. program.

All D.V.M. students, meanwhile, take courses exploring human-animal relationships, legal and ethical issues in veterinary medicine, and euthanasia. These courses, and many cocurricular classes, are offered in the Animals Welfare, Ethics and Policy Signature Opportunity, which builds on the legacy of the school’s early leaders, including the late Dean Franklin Loew and late Professor Elizabeth Lawrence, a pioneer in animal welfare.

The D.V.M. program is also a national leader in reducing animal use in the teaching of anatomy, surgery, and clinical procedures. Historically, veterinary students practiced on animals euthanized after surgery or before anatomy lessons. However, Tufts students objected, and M. True Ballas, V00, convinced faculty to study whether the same educational benefits could be gained by using cadavers donated by pet owners. In 2005, Cummings School became the first veterinary school in the U.S. to move entirely to a willed-body-based program for teaching small-animal anatomy, a policy since adopted by all thirty veterinary schools in the U.S.

This progressive change informed the 2008 creation of the Shelter Medicine Program, set within the Luke & Lily Lerner Spay/Neuter Clinic. The curriculum now requires students to learn common procedures by performing supervised free or low-cost surgeries on shelter animals.

Cummings School has also taken the lead in laboratory animal medicine. The school’s first two deans were trailblazers in the field and its benefactor, Henry L. Foster, V83, H92, made major improvements in the quality control and commercial availability of common rodent models. The school has long looked to improve the lives of animals in laboratory settings, including working to reduce, refine, and replace the use of animals in research. Tufts is the only veterinary school that offers a degree combining a D.V.M. with an M.S. in laboratory animal medicine, a program that trains veterinarians to advocate for lab animals and ensure that all welfare regulations are followed.

Founded in 2015, the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction seeks to determine how animals help us better handle physical and emotional stress, commit to fitness and educational goals, overcome disabilities, and recover from psychological trauma—as well as how humans, in return, affect animals’ well-being. The initiative breaks down traditional barriers among fields—veterinary and human medicine, engineering, and psychology—and draws on the expertise of faculty, staff, and students from across Tufts schools. They work on projects ranging from studying how therapy dogs can help comfort children undergoing treatment for cancer to saving the last elephants in the wild.

Genevieve Rajewski, the editor of Cummings Veterinary Medicine, can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.