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A personal perspective of the medical-veterinary relationship

Brian Summers, BVSc, MSc, PhD, FRCPath, FRCVS

RCVS Fellowship Day 2017

Report of presentation

Brian Summers, a comparative veterinary anatomical pathologist based in Australia, gave a personal view of how the relationship between the veterinary profession and the medical profession had changed over the past 30 years.

He explained that, while on a year’s sabbatical in Cambridge 30 years ago, he had attended a meeting of the British Neuropathological Society. It had been made very clear – although not said in so many words – that any veterinary presenter at the meeting would be tolerated but not encouraged, and that the medical profession was superior to the veterinary profession.

Despite this glimpse of what he described as ‘the dark side’ of the relationship between the two professions, he had always had a keen interest in comparative pathology. Vets, he said, were comparative biologists. They were taught about at least seven species during their training, so it made no sense for them not to want to learn about their own species, too.

Over the course of his career, he had joined a number of medical societies, including the American Association of Neuropathologists. He had also had positive experiences while working at Cornell University in the USA. He described how, on one occasion, a medical physician had expressed an interest in attending the veterinary neurology rounds. During these rounds, they saw an Arab horse with probable cerebellar disease. Subsequently, Professor Summers had been invited by the physician to examine a child suspected of having the same condition. It had been a very informative experience, he said.

He had also started a comparative pathology section at Cornell by reaching out to pathologists at the local hospital. They had begun by exchanging three cases each semester, with the veterinary pathology residents describing the human cases and the physicians describing the veterinary ones. This allowed the veterinary residents to have direct exposure to biopsies from people and gain understanding of human disease.

On one occasion, the veterinary pathologists had also helped inform their human counterparts. There had been an outbreak of leptospirosis in New York State, so one of the veterinary cases exchanged had been samples of skin cells from an infected animal. The physicians did not know what the infection was – moreover, they did not know that it was affecting the state.

Since then, there had been many other examples of the two professions working together. Professor Summers described how a medical anaesthetist had volunteered in the Cornell veterinary hospital to gain experience of how anaesthesia was handled in veterinary medicine. He also discussed how an equine veterinary surgeon, Lisa Fortier, who had a particular interest in arthritis in racehorses, was working with Rob Warren, an expert in human joint diseases, to develop protocols to resurface arthritic cartilages. These techniques would be directly applicable to people.

Also, a collaboration between Cornell and a leading US human cancer centre was studying lymphoma in a canine model. The purpose was to engineer lympocytes in the dogs that would attack T-cell lymphomas, and to use the animal model to inform understanding of the human disease.

In a different interaction between veterinary and medical oncologists, researchers were studying spontaneous neoblastic diseases in small animals with the aim of translating the findings from animals to people.

The final example given by Professor Summers was that of John Finnie, a veterinary neuropathologist, and Peter Blumbergs, one of Australia’s leading neuropathologists, at the University of Adelaide. They were working together to study the pathogenesis of brain injury using tissues from livestock slaughtered in abattoirs. Captive bolt stunning provided an ideal model of traumatic brain injury, he said.

In conclusion, he was very happy that there were now plenty of examples of the veterinary and medical professions seeing each other as equals. They were working together, sharing their knowledge and learning from each other – and long may it continue!