Dr. Edward Breitschwerdt Bartonellosis: The Dog that Changed the Course of My Research, Career, and Life

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Presentation Abstract

Bartonella species are fastidious Gram-negative bacteria that are highly adapted to a mammalian reservoir host and within which the bacteria usually cause a long-lasting, intra-erythrocytic and endotheliotropic bloodstream infection. These facts are of particular importance to veterinarians, physicians, diagnosticians, public health officials, and pet owners as an increasing number of animals have been identified as reservoir hosts for zoonotic Bartonella species. Among numerous examples, Bartonella henselae, Bartonella koehlerae and Bartonella clarridgeae have co-evolved with cats, Bartonella vinsonii subsp. berkhoffii and Bartonella rochalimae have co-evolved with dogs and wild canines, and Bartonella bovis has co-evolved with cattle. Importantly, the list of reservoir-adapted Bartonella species, including a large number of recently identified bat and rodent species, continues to expand exponentially, as new Bartonella spp. and additional reservoir hosts are discovered throughout the world.

Bartonellosis is a zoonotic infectious disease of worldwide distribution, caused by an expanding number of recently discovered Bartonella spp. Of comparative medical importance, Bartonella spp. are transmitted by several arthropod or insect vectors, including fleas, keds, lice, sand flies, ticks and potentially mites and spiders. Prior to 1990, there was only one named Bartonella species (B. bacilliformis), whereas there are now over 36 species, of which 17 have been associated with an expanding spectrum of disease in dogs and human patients. Recent advances in diagnostic techniques have facilitated documentation of chronic bloodstream infections with Bartonella spp. in healthy and sick animals, and in immunocompetent and immunocompromised human patients with cardiovascular, neurological and rheumatologic symptoms. 

In 1993, I examined a 3 year-old Labrador retriever that had experienced a chronic, insidious and progressive illness during the preceding 9 months. Dr. Dorsey Kordick, then a Ph. D. student in my research laboratory, successfully isolated a Bartonella species from this dog, representing the first time this genus of bacteria was isolated from a dog anywhere in the world. Subsequently, in collaboration with bacteriologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the newly isolated bacteria was defined as microbiologically unique and named Bartonella vinsonii subsp. berkhoffii. To a substantial degree, this young retriever and this bacterial isolate served as the foundation for a research program that has generated an important and controversial body of medical evidence related to canine and human bartonellosis. Not only are dogs our best friends, but naturally-infected dogs continue to provide important comparative medical insights that have enhanced our understanding of human bartonellosis.     

In recent years, physicians, veterinarians and other scientists have called for a One Health approach to this emerging zoonotic infectious disease. Comparative medical research is needed to more fully define disease manifestations, to clarify the pathogenesis of disease induced by this stealth pathogen, to validate effective treatment regimens, and to develop vaccines and other strategies that prevent zoonotic disease transmission from animals to humans. With additional research, it is likely that the genus Bartonella and the disease bartonellosis will represent major microbiological and clinical paradigm changers in the future.

Current CHF Grant –  2287: Enhanced Testing for the Diagnosis of Bartonellosis in Dogs


Dr. Edward B. Breitschwerdt is a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. He is also an adjunct professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, and a Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM).  Dr. Breitschwerdt directs the Intracellular Pathogens Research Laboratory in the Comparative Medicine Institute at North Carolina State University. He also co-directs the Vector Borne Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory and is the director of the NCSU-CVM Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory. A graduate of the University of Georgia, Breitschwerdt completed an internship and residency in Internal Medicine at the University of Missouri between 1974 and 1977.  He has served as president of the Specialty of Internal Medicine and as chairperson of the ACVIM Board of Regents. He is a former associate editor for the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine and was a founding member of the ACVIM Foundation.

Breitschwerdt’s clinical interests include infectious diseases, immunology, and nephrology. For over 30 years, his research has emphasized vector-transmitted, intracellular pathogens.  Most recently, his research group has contributed to cutting-edge research in the areas of animal and human bartonellosis. In addition to authoring numerous book chapters and proceedings, Dr. Breitschwerdt’s research group has published more than 350 manuscripts in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In 2012, he received the North Carolina State University Alumni Association Outstanding Research Award and in 2013, he received the Holladay Medal, the highest award bestowed on a faculty member at North Carolina State University. In 2017, Dr. Breitschwerdt received the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges Outstanding Research Award.

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