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A Conversation with Gregg Dean

“Between animal and human medicine there is no dividing line—nor should there be. The object is different but the experience obtained constitutes the basis of all medicine.”

Dr. Rudolf Virchcow, German pathologist and father of comparative medicine

“Veterinary medicine and human medicine complement each other and should be considered as one medicine.”

Dr. William Osler, founder, medical teaching hospital concept at Johns Hopkins University

As these 19th century statements indicate, it has long been understood that many of the diseases and medical conditions that affect animals also affect humans. This One Medicine relationship is the basis for the new Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research (CCMTR) and its mission “to enhance collaborative, translational, interdisciplinary approaches for the comparative study of animal and human diseases.” As the CCMTR director, Gregg Dean—a professor of immunopathology in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences—is charged with managing a North Carolina State University research center involving some 100 tenure-track faculty participants representing 14 departments from five colleges. He discusses the collaborative opportunities that interest the Center and the resulting human and veterinary medicine research that can lead to improved health care for all species.

Why is the success of the CCMTR important for the future of the College?

Simply put, the success of the CCMTR will help advance the interests of the College. The Center is a rational extension of what has always been important to the CVM. It has always been important to nurture close and productive interaction between basic and clinical scientists. The College has been and will continue to be a leader in conducting research that benefits the health of veterinary patients. The College also wants to contribute to human medicine and the CCMTR holds great promise in this area. Teaching, of course, is a major mission and the Center will help develop the next generation of veterinary scientists. The CCMTR is a way for the College to bring the wealth of research talent from across the university to support biomedical investigations of mutual interest to researchers within and external to the Center. The Center has aggressive goals based on innovation, translation, and utilization—steps that will lead to novel approaches to understand, diagnose, and treat animal and human disease.

How is the CCMTR organized to accommodate this broad mission?

The Center is subdivided into five research cores: Allergic Diseases, with a focus on spontaneous companion animal allergic diseases; Clinical Genomics, with a focus on genetic and epigenetic mechanisms in disease states; Emerging and Zoonotic Diseases, which takes an integrated approach involving animals, humans, and the environment to achieve a better understanding of infectious diseases; Mucosal Pathophysiology, which focuses on pathogenetic mechanisms of disease in respiratory, gastrointestinal, and reproductive tracts; and Oncology, with a focus on improving the understanding of pathogenesis and treatment of cancer through collaborative research.

How do you approach administrating a group of independent researchers?

That’s a good question. While faculty researchers value their independence, they recognize that, to be competitive, they need the support of a program that can leverage the resources necessary to move their research along. These are investigators who want to be part of the Center. They are looking for new ways of pursuing their research. The nature of the Center—taking a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to problems—addresses the reality of science today. Technology is changing so rapidly that it’s exceedingly difficult for a lone investigator to be competitive. More than 70% of the faculty at NC State are engaged in sponsored research and, with so many investigators, we need to be more aware of possible collaborations that could be developed. A CCMTR goal is to provide that common focal point for investigators to come together, learn about each other’s research, and discover areas of collaboration that could lead to results not easily achieved by a single investigator. As far as the demands of traditional research administration, that important activity remains with the Center member’s own department and college. I’m in the exciting position of being able to focus on what we can do with all of this talent and technology, and how can we leverage our expertise with potential partners—whether these relationships involve governmental, corporate, or academic interests, or perhaps even intramural interests at NC State.

Do you believe that bringing similar research activities together under the Center umbrella enhances opportunities for funding and external partnerships?

Definitely. These opportunities include corporate research contacts and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the regularity with which I’ve been contacted by biotechnology corporations that are interested in learning more about our biomedical expertise. I’m in a position where I can outline our research strengths and arrange for our people to come together to discuss collaboration. Additionally, by bringing appropriate NC State faculty together, we gain credibility when seeking external support such as federal funding for training grants and large-scale collaborative projects. The fact that we are involved in biomedical research with the health systems at the University of North Carolina and Duke University as well as other corporate and academic partners attracts the attention of the National Institutes of Health [NIH]. The NIH is particularly interested in these collaborative relationships when it looks to fund projects. Assembling research expertise through the CCMTR makes us competitive and attractive to both private and federal partners.

The CCMTR mission, in part, is to enhance translational research. What is involved in translational research?

Translational research is typically described as taking knowledge from the laboratory bench to the patient bedside. I take this one step further and envision translational research as a circle. Let me explain. Perhaps a health issue is identified in a Veterinary Teaching Hospital clinic where a patient has a need but we do not have an immediate solution. This issue may need to be investigated at its most basic level in the research laboratory. Once we have a better understanding of the issue, we can create a rational strategy to treat, prevent, or detect the related disease or condition and bring the right partners together to develop the required technology. Once we have that solution—whether it’s a pharmaceutical, a device, or a process—we have to test it and eventually take it back into the clinical setting. Through this process, we can best serve our veterinary patients and perhaps human patients as well. This circle of research may produce immediate payoffs and profitable patents, but we also want it to advance our long-term understanding of animal and human disease processes.

How important is the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in the work of the CCMTR?

A unique strength of the Center comes from the expertise of the clinical scientists in the hospital who are driven to provide the best care possible for their patients. The caseload of our hospital [19,000 annual case accessions] is a tremendous resource, which is particularly important when you reach the point of testing therapeutic approaches or technology. The hospital has a large patient population that provides extremely valuable information that helps us understand disease mechanisms in animals. This, in turn, will lead to greater insight into human health issues and their potential solutions.

The planned Randall B. Terry, Jr. Companion Animal Veterinary Medical Center must be of great interest to the CCMTR.

It definitely is. The planned site for the Terry Center is intentionally across from the two-year-old CVM Research Building on what NC State now calls the Centennial Biomedical Campus. While the patient care the current hospital provides is exceptional, the facility is 24 years old and, at 45,000 square feet, is restricted in the space available for people, patients, programs, and equipment. The new Terry Center, at 115,000 square feet, will feature state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, and will allow clinicians to gradually increase companion animal cases to some 25,000 a year. The increased activity will mean more opportunities for collaboration between clinical and basic research.

How do you reach out to external biomedical and biotechnical organizations to encourage them to become research partners?

We have to be open-minded and consider how our interests cross academic disciplines and research areas. In some cases, the approach is obvious and stems from current interaction that a particular investigator may have. Dr. Thierry Olivry, for example, has done tremendous work in atopic dermatitis, investigating the disease on the basic level and testing a variety of therapeutic applications for industry. So, when we want to increase our efforts in atopic dermatitis, we can go to those partners who already support Dr. Olivry’s research. Many other Center faculty members have similar external partnerships, which we want to broaden for the benefit of both parties. The connection may not be quite as developed in other cases. For example, we are looking at creating closer relationships with researchers in the School of Medicine and School of Public Health at UNC who are pursuing projects that may be of interest to us. The Center provides a way for me to represent our expertise and to inform UNC investigators and clinicians about how we may be able to help them advance their biomedical research.

What does the Center offer in terms of a research environment that is not readily available in well-funded corporate labs or in biomedical facilities within human medical centers?

The fact that we have so many faculty researchers who offer such a breadth of expertise helps differentiate the CCMTR from other research centers. You have to bring something to the table to have an effective research partnership. We have intellectual properties that may interest some partners. In other cases, we may have technology that is not widely available or cannot be readily replicated elsewhere. For example, Dr. Jorge Piedriheta is the expert on transgenic pigs and his lab is a national leader in that research area. There would be no need to duplicate that resource. One of our valuable assets is the fact that we have the ability to conduct research involving large animal models. Many human research institutions use rodents as models, but you are limited in what you can learn in those systems. Again, we have a huge patient population that provides us with spontaneous disease in larger animals—companion animals that live in the same environment as their owners. We have a number of experimental models such as atopic dermatitis or feline immunodeficiency virus to name two. We also have highly skilled clinicians who are capable and interested in carrying out investigations to evaluate new therapeutic modalities in a clinical trial setting. This is particularly appealing to a corporation producing veterinary pharmaceuticals. To conduct a clinical trial, a corporation must recruit and communicate with a large group of independent private practice veterinarians; or, it can work with the CCMTR and have access to a maximum number of relevant cases in a controlled tertiary referral setting where it can be confident that the clinical trial will be performed uniformly. As far as biomedical research facilities within human medicine, there is usually a point where some work has to be done outside the human clinic. If there are correlates of disease in animal models that can provide a better understanding of human disease, it becomes of particular value to the human medicine researcher. If we can evaluate therapeutic approaches in animals that provide important data for human treatment, that’s another productive collaboration. With other  partners, the CCMTR may be involved in more basic bench research.

What are some of the key areas of investigation within the CCMTR?

There are so many. The interdisciplinary nature of the Center means that many key contributions come from outside traditional veterinary research. This includes Dr. Marian McCord’s (College of Textiles) research on antimicrobial textiles that could reduce the risk of nosocomial and zoonotic infections in the hospital and research environments; Dr. Marie Davidian’s (College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences) innovative statistical methods to deal with incomplete data sets that frequently plague clinical trials; and Dr. Shawn Gomez’s (College of Engineering, Biomedical Engineering) modeling of protein-protein interactions that can help inform a rational path of investigation in the face of enormous data sets resulting from modern high-throughput technologies. Dr. Greg Gibson (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) is involved with several CVM investigators, including Drs. Natasha Olby, Prema Arasu, Matthew Breen, Thierry Olivry, and Michael Stoskopf, researching genetic linkages and gene expression profiles of specific canine diseases. The clinical significance of canine allergies and growing recognition of the similarities to human allergic diseases is bringing exciting new opportunities from both federal and corporate sources to the faculty in the CCMTR Allergic Disease Research Core. And, of course, the Mucosal Pathophysiology Research Core, a group of scientists that has long been a research powerhouse, has been further strengthened by the recent addition of pathologist Dr. Arnold Brody. The synergies initiated or strengthened by the Center are too numerous to list here. It’s very exciting. 

How will you measure the success of the CCMTR?

A response to that question traditionally would be contained in an organization’s strategic plan—where we expect to be in five years. The speed at which medicine, technology, and societal needs are evolving, however, make a standard strategic planning model ineffective for mapping the Center’s future. We need to be flexible and responsive and able to take advantage of appropriate opportunities that present themselves. We do have certain expectations—we expect new research collaborations to develop and we want to see these research projects lead to significant extramural funding. We hope that, ultimately, this CCMTR research adds to the body of knowledge and to the development of the biomedical solutions that improve animal and human health. So we obviously want to see something tangible at the end of the research pipeline—a specific therapeutic approach, a diagnostic test, a vaccine, a biomedical device that came about as a result of Center research. We also want to contribute to the training of the next generation of biomedical scientists. Our hope is that the CCMTR will be recognized by other veterinary and human medical institutions as a leader in multidisciplinary research and translational research.

How does the CCMTR rank among research centers at other colleges of veterinary medicine?

I think it is unique. While there are similar research efforts, what sets the CCMTR apart is its large and diverse faculty membership. We intentionally reached out beyond the CVM and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to include areas important to biomedical research such as engineering, design, textiles, mathematics, and statistical modeling. Our geographic location, of course, is another huge advantage given the number of biotechnical, biomedical, and pharmaceutical companies—future partners all—that are minutes away in Research Triangle Park. Additionally, there is our growing relationship with the leading medical researchers at UNC, Duke, and the WakeMed Hospital System. This all makes the potential for the Center exciting and hard to match.