Brad Kelley/The Daily Evergreen Several years ago in a lab at WSU, Katrina Mealey discovered a genetic mutation in herding dogs that produces an alarming reaction to medication for parasites.
“If you gave it to certain collies, they would go into a coma; but other dogs, it didn’t affect them at all,” said Mealey, a professor who runs the university’s Veterinary Clinical Pharmacology Laboratory.
Mealey published her findings in 2001, and today, she offers a test for dogs to screen for the genetic mutation.
“We have owners and veterinarians from all around the world send a cheek swab that just gives us a little bit of DNA from the dog, and we can tell them whether they should avoid that drug completely or whether they should use a decreased dose,” she said. “We’re basically saving dogs’ lives every day.”
Mealey’s work is part of a budding field of research called pharmacogenetics, often colloquially referred to as individualized medicine — a subfield of pharmacology that examines how genetic variations among patients produce differing responses to drugs.
While individualized medicine is common in human health care, Mealey is one of only a handful of researchers across the globe focusing on the pharmacogenetics of animals. And now, she is part of a new team at WSU which is the first program ever created to study individualized medicine in animals.
For now, Mealey is one of only two researchers in the program. Her partner, professor Michael Court, came to WSU about four months ago, bringing with him a background in veterinary anesthesiology.
During his time as an anesthesiologist, Court gained firsthand experience observing the effects of anesthesia on dogs.
“What amazed me was how different was their response to the anesthesia,” he said.
Some dogs recovered much quicker than others, he said. Greyhounds, for instance, exhibited a much longer recovery period when exposed to certain types of anesthesia.
Now, Court is looking for the genetic secret to why some breeds take longer to recover from anesthesia.
“I haven’t yet gotten the final answer,” he said, “but coming here is going to allow me to determine what is the genetic basis for this difference.”
Court hopes to eventually apply those findings to other breeds of sight hounds like the Irish wolfhound. The goal is to develop a test that would identify the gene that produces the reaction in dogs.
Mealey works with herding dogs like collies and Australian shepherds. But she plans to expand her research to include genetic mutations in other breeds of dogs, like Labrador retrievers, which sometimes develop liver toxicity and die after receiving treatment for arthritis.
Court is also interested in expanding his research to include genetic mutations in cats. About 20 years ago, he studied the harmful effects of Tylenol on cats.
“It turns out one single Tylenol dose to a cat can very easily kill it,” Court said. “So, it’s a hypersensitivity to it.”
Yet, veterinarians sometimes still give cats the drug either not knowing or thinking about its deadly effects, he said.
This semester was a good time for WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine to establish its new program, said Bill Dernell, the chair of veterinary clinical sciences. The college is in the process of restructuring after a number of employees recently retired.
“We are in the process, I’d say, of rebuilding our department, our faculty,” Dernell said. “A number of positions had been open over time, and because of the budget cuts, we weren’t able to refill those positions.”
In that process, the department heads looked for a new focus that would make sense for the college, he said.
“This is a good opportunity for us to try and be kind of at the cutting edge in the veterinary field,” Dernell said.
Now in its beginning stages, Mealey and Court are looking for a third researcher to join their team. The college is considering an open field of candidates for that position, including non-veterinarians and Ph.D. or DVM researchers, Dernell said.