Name: Phillip Whitfield
Position: Lecturer, veterinary science, University of Liverpool, 2003 to present
Background: PhD in biochemistry, Institute of Child Health, University College, London, 1994-1998; postdoctoral fellow, Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Adelaide, Australia, division of genetic medicine, 1998-2001; postdoctoral research scientist, clinical biochemistry, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, UK, 2001-2003
In a review article
in the February issue of Proteomics Clinical Applications
, researchers from the University of Liverpool, UK, argue that there is a paucity of proteomics research directed at animal health, and that more of such work could have benefits for understanding human disease.
The commonplace use of mice and rats in experiments can “provide a considerable level of experimental control, particularly with the advent of transgenic technologies … and has led to important developments in identifying the cellular and molecular components of many human disease states and in extrapolating how many of these elements function in a coordinated manner in physiological systems,” the authors write.
However, rodent models have intrinsic limitations as biological surrogates for humans, including differences in anatomy and physiology that can diminish their value. As an alternative, studies using larger animal such as dogs, cats, and farm animals “can shed light on pathological processes that so far have proved difficult to study for practical, ethical, and biological reasons in humans and rodents,” according to the authors.
ProteoMonitor spoke with the corresponding author of the article, Phillip Whitfield, to discuss the article and proteomics research in veterinary medicine.
Below is an edited version of the conversation.
What is the current state of proteomics research in veterinary medicine?
Increasingly in the UK and the US, there’s a growing interest in people wanting to take treatments for their pets, their companion animals further, and they may have insurance, they may be wanting to pay, and therefore there’s a driver from that perspective to understand animal diseases and develop therapies and treatments for them.
On the other side of things as well, from the veterinary perspective, there’s obviously a lot of interest in agriculture for proteomic technologies because, again, there’s a huge amount of interest from the level of the disease for the animal, for wanting to maintain the animal. And also from agriculture and farming perspectives, there’s a major implication in terms of finance, particularly infectious diseases.
That’s not an area I’m particularly familiar with … but in the veterinary world, there’s a substantial amount of research undertaken, and therefore proteomic technologies can be applied to understand the basic mechanisms of infectious diseases and possibly look toward the development of maybe vaccines and treatments. So livestock is obviously a major driver for a lot of this.
The pet industry is a huge business, and pet owners have shown a willingness to spend a fortune on their pets. Is that driving proteomics research in this area?
I can’t say for sure, but I guess that that’s probably an important thing to consider. The other issue is that these diseases have some relevance to our human colleagues, but they are important to understand at the basic veterinary level.
If the field is likely to expand, I guess … there’s a way that things trickle down from some of our colleagues working in human medicine. We’re just in a fortunate position that being based in a vet school, we have clinicians who are seeing animals with various diseases [and] who are interested in understanding the biology and the physiology, something they can possibly take on further.
We feel that we can apply proteomic technologies to help understand these diseases better.
Do you see veterinary schools embracing proteomics?
I think they have. Certainly in the US, a number of veterinary faculties, if they don’t have dedicated facilities, they certainly work closely with their colleagues within the universities or research institutions. Absolutely, I think they’re only going to embrace this more and more, particularly in prevalent diseases in the veterinary field, as I mentioned, agriculture, but maybe also canine diseases … some forms of cancers, some of which are quite prevalent in dogs, and therefore proteomics can be used to understand the basic mechanisms, who knows, even to identify some biomarkers in a similar way that people have done that in humans.
Some of the papers that we cited in the review are from researchers based in the US who are doing exactly that. They were using SELDI, I think primarily, but other proteomic technologies directly applicable to cancer research in humans would be appropriate to canine systems, as well.
Coming from the opposite angle, what about people working in human-directed proteomics? Are you seeing that they’re becoming interested in using the technology for veterinary research?
That’s a bit tricky: yes and no. People are very often interested in working with animals as models of human disease. Our driver here, being in a veterinary school, we’re driving the animal health angle.
People are always interested in a lot of the work that myself and my colleagues present at meetings and publish, simply because, as you say, they see that it’s slightly unusual as it were, compared to the mainstream proteomics, which understandably is driven toward human health.
Do you get any sense that they view applying this to the pet world as being frivolous?
No, I don’t think anyone thinks that. I think that they’re just slightly surprised that there is a driver for it. I don’t think anyone ever criticizes or thinks that it’s not a valuable thing to do. On the contrary, everyone sees it as valuable, but because they often work in human fields or maybe other fields, they’re quite surprised.
In terms of agriculture, there’s obviously a major financial implication and for people being able to understand diseases … it could be the difference between a farming community being successful and not being successful.
Certainly in the UK, and no doubt in the US, as well, a lot of governmental bodies are interested in this sort of technology because, again, it can hopefully advance our understanding of animal health, and therefore improve yields and ultimately prevent loss of livestock.
It sounds like any interest is coming from the academic area. What about pharma? Have you seen any growing interest on their part?
Personally, I have no contact with drug companies with regards to proteomics, but a lot of the big pharmas do have animal health arms where they are developing medicines to treat animals, and so they obviously have an interest in that.
Most species have not had their genomes sequenced. It’s been completed for dogs and cow, right?
Does it exist for cats and sheep?
A lot of them are in process, but no. And that’s one of the points that we make in the paper: very often cross matching species is the best way to get at it. For example, if you’re doing a preliminary proteomic screening, you simply want to identify your proteins of interest.
Very often we go to peptide mass fingerprinting, then de novo sequencing, and cross species matching and such like. Those would be the major ways that we go about it, but you’re quite right, the lack of genomic information can be sometimes slightly restrictive, but it doesn’t stop us tremendously. The cross-species matching is actually quite helpful.
We’ve looked at some samples of very exotic animals, which are very unlikely to have their genome sequenced, not for the foreseeable future. You might find that you’re able to relate it back to a more common animal.
Have you seen any proteomics research directed at humans that can be translated to animals?
We haven’t followed up anything like that, but yes, I guess any disease that occurs in a corresponding species … we don’t restrict ourselves to veterinary proteomics work. We trawl the major proteomics press … and obviously anything that’s interesting in humans is of interest to us because very often, we can apply very similar methods or gain further insights from human diseases to animals.
What are you working on?
In terms of proteomics, we’re doing a lot of classical comparative proteomics where we’re maybe taking body fluids and trying to see if we can’t compare affected versus controls, to see if we can’t distinguish diseased animals from controls or animal, with different disorders. We’ve looked at primarily canine tissues and fluids.
What disease areas are you looking at?
We’ve done a small study looking at dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs and we’ve also looked to a small extent at lymphoma in canines as well. Those projects are ongoing.
Who would be the leaders in this field?
Well, my colleague in Liverpool, Professor Rob Beynon, is very much a senior academic in this field. He’s a real driver. Rob’s on the paper, and we work very closely together.
In the US, Shane Burgess [at Mississippi State University]. Also Professor Mike Dunn [at the UCD Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research] has done some work looking at naturally occurring animal models of heart diseases as a way of trying to gain an insight into human disease.