Veterinary pathologist Dr. Susan Detmer. Photo: Debra Marshall.

Detmer brings PRRS award to Canada

Veterinary pathologist Dr. Susan Detmer recently received Boehringer Ingelheim's Advancement in Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) Research Award in support of her ongoing investigations of the disease.

Veterinary pathologist Dr. Susan Detmer recently received Boehringer Ingelheim's Advancement in Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) Research Award in support of her ongoing investigations of the disease.

Detmer, who is an assistant professor in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine's Department of Veterinary Pathology, travelled to San Diego, Calif., in March to accept the award at the American Association of Swine Veterinarians' annual meeting.

"I was really excited when I heard that I had been chosen," says Detmer. "The awards are usually given to veterinarians and researchers working out in the field.  I'm a pathologist, so it was an unexpected surprise for me to get the award."

Her research project, "A pathologic evaluation of PRRS virus infection in fetal implantation sites" was one of three projects selected to receive a $25,000 research award. Detmer is the first researcher from a Canadian institution to be selected for the grant in the 11 years that Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc. (BIVI) has sponsored the PRRS research awards.

These awards support studies that are aimed at answering questions about the diagnosis, control and eradication of the costly PRRS virus – a huge priority for the swine industry.

"It's the most expensive disease for the swine industry," Detmer explains. "PRRS results in around $600 million in production losses in North America every year. It is a difficult disease to control because it can spread through the air, through fomites (inanimate objects coated with the virus), and on clothing when people become contaminated by walking through a barn with infected pigs."

In addition to reproductive losses due to abortions, stillbirths and mummified fetuses, the PRRS virus causes respiratory disease in growing pigs resulting in stunted growth as well as increased susceptibility to other diseases.

Detmer's present study is a spinoff of her work on an earlier project led by Dr. John Harding from the WCVM's Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences. Funded primarily by Genome Canada and other agencies, the $1.7-million project studied samples taken from 133 pregnant gilts and their fetuses (114 PRRS-infected sows and 19 uninfected control sows).

Using samples collected during that project, Detmer and PhD candidate Predrag Novakovic now aim to study the disease's pathogenesis, the process by which PRRS develops in the reproductive model.

"This disease has been studied for over 20 years now, and nobody knows the pathogenesis in the uterus yet – what is going on and why the fetuses are dying," says Detmer. "This is a huge opportunity for us to look into the mechanisms of the disease in the uterus."

She is also planning additional follow up projects including genotyping of the sows and fetuses — work that is being carried out at the University of Alberta. A future project at the WCVM will examine the inflammatory products involved in the disease process.

Detmer recalls that her interest in research started at a young age. She knew that she wanted to be a veterinarian by the time she was 12, but after meeting her dad's friend, Dr. Jagdev Sharma, a former researcher at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine, she knew that she wanted to be a veterinarian who did research.

The Minnesota native's first exposure to the WCVM was during her pathology residency at the Western Conference of Veterinary Diagnostic Pathologists held in Saskatoon. The conference is organized by the department of veterinary pathology and she is currently serving as its scientific coordinator.

"When I met all the people here, I really liked them. Everyone was so friendly. They posted a job opening just as I was finishing my PhD at Minnesota and I thought it was meant to be" Detmer recalled. "Everyone pitches in when someone needs help in my department — it's a positive environment for me to develop into a good instructor, pathologist and researcher."

Although Detmer spends the majority of her time conducting research, she also works in co-operation with Prairie Diagnostic Services Inc. (the provincial veterinary laboratory) with graduate students and fourth-year veterinary students on their necropsy rotation. As well, she provides lectures in systemic pathology to the second-year students.

"Before I had even started vet school, I was working at the University of Minnesota's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. I worked there all through vet school and specialized in immunohistochemistry and histopathology. By the time I finished vet school, I knew I wanted to be a pathologist."

While Detmer enjoys her research and clinical work at the WCVM, she also likes the opportunity to work with the students, and she strives to spark their interest in the discipline. Even though it's one of the more difficult courses and requires the students to combine their knowledge from other classes, they can get really excited about it once they see it all come together.

"Anytime I see that light in a student's eyes, I really encourage that person to do more – an extra fourth-year rotation or even working with us over the summer. Pathology is not for everyone, but when a student enjoys it, you can tell."
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