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One Love, One Health

Anonymous gift to Purdue Veterinary Medicine enhances possibilities for translational breakthroughs in sepsis

Thanks to a $3 million gift to the College of Veterinary Medicine from an anonymous donor, Purdue researchers will make headway in the fight against diseases that affect both animals and people. With the largest single donation to the college, his kindness furthers the mission of a veterinary “One Health” philosophy, linking the animal world with humanity and the environment.

The man and his late wife, who had several cats but no children, were longtime supporters of Priority 4 Paws, the college’s mobile surgery unit that performs spay and neuter procedures for shelter animals awaiting adoption. Then he ran across a story about a Purdue Veterinary Medicine research project and learned more about the translational medicine research related to the treatment of sepsis, even as his wife was dying from such a disease. Their shared legacy, even though unnamed, will save lives.

Susceptible to sepsis

Sandra Taylor, associate professor of large animal medicine, studies the effects of sepsis in horses. A worldwide common cause of illness and death in humans and animals, she says sepsis is defined as “an exaggerated and overwhelming inflammatory response to infection.”

Most often, it’s a bacterial infection. In fact, that’s the case about 95% of the time. “The challenge is knocking down the inflammatory response that’s gone into overdrive,” Taylor says. “The body overshoots when responding to infection.”

In most cases, antimicrobial drugs, such as antibiotics, can effectively resolve an infection. But widespread inflammation could be severe enough to stop a heart from beating or a lung from breathing. “The overwhelming inflammation is the problem. Right now, we don’t have a good treatment for that,” Taylor says.

Horses are particularly susceptible to sepsis. In adult horses, sepsis can accompany severe cases of pneumonia, colitis or uterine infection. Newborn foals are susceptible as well if colostrum (the mother’s first milk) is not ingested within hours of birth. Full of protective antibodies that help stop ingested bacteria from entering the blood stream, colostrum acts as a natural antimicrobial. 

Taylor is currently testing various treatment options for sepsis in horses, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, vitamin cocktails and stem cells. These investigations could translate to humans.

She says, “Animal models for studying human disease are critical for advancing medical knowledge. Most breakthroughs in the medical field are due, at least in part, to what was learned from animals in a research setting.”

As the donor learned more about the specifics of Taylor’s research in particular, with all its potential applicability to human cases, he felt motivated to make a $3 million difference.

Tanya Finkbiner, chief development officer for the College of Veterinary Medicine, who worked with the donor on his gift, later reflected on his “quiet” donation. “Human medicine is touched by a veterinarian. Food production is non-existent without a veterinarian. The often ‘quiet’ partner in public health is the veterinarian,” Finkbiner says.

Furthering discovery, learning and engagement

Though she also treats cattle, alpacas, llamas, goats and pigs, Taylor has a special love for equine-focused research. This became evident during her graduate school days while investigating an equine model for HIV. As a teacher, she hopes every Purdue veterinary student finds that same passion. “I hope they find what they really love to do,” she says. “They have so many options. They can pursue private practice and work with a variety of animals, including small animals, large animals, exotics or wildlife. Or they can go into industry, public health, research or academia.”

That diversity of work is where Taylor thrives at Purdue, as do many of her faculty colleagues. Harm HogenEsch, associate dean for research and professor of immunopathology, helps faculty identify both funding opportunities and areas that have funding potential.

HogenEsch believes antimicrobial resistance is a good example of the “One Health” philosophy, which has more than one definition. “It’s an umbrella term to emphasize that human health, animal health and the environment are all interconnected. In order to address certain important problems in human health, you need to take into account animal health and vice versa,” says HogenEsch, who also noted that antimicrobial resistance is recognized by the World Health Organization as a huge threat to public health.

Reflecting on the $3 million gift, HogenEsch foresees a beneficial payoff for both people and animals. That funding, when leveraged, could even lead to federal funding for other investigations. “The gift allows us to enhance our research infrastructure,” he says. “It’s a great benefit to our college.”