Encouraging the Next Generation of Canine Health Researchers – A Success Story
How do you combine a love for genetics, immune-mediated disease, and emergency medicine? For Steven Friedenberg, DVM, PhD, DACVECC of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, it’s done quite naturally. Dr. Friedenberg is an alumnus of the AKC Canine Health Foundation’s (CHF) Clinician-Scientist Fellowship Program and his research on the genetic basis of immune-mediated disease in dogs is not only fascinating, but also has real potential to improve the standard of care for dogs affected by these diseases. His story is a testament to the value of CHF’s educational programs and the importance of supporting the next generation of canine health researchers.
Dr. Friedenberg grew up with dogs, so after his first career in the business world, he decided to pursue a veterinary degree with hopes of becoming a veterinary orthopedic surgeon. While studying at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, he worked in the laboratory of Rory Todhunter, BVSc, PhD studying the genetics of canine hip dysplasia. This sparked his love of genetics. Dr. Friedenberg also enjoyed working in the emergency room – stabilizing and managing some of the sickest veterinary patients. He went on to complete a residency in emergency veterinary medicine at Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine and earned his board certification from the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care. While working in the ER, immune-mediated diseases comprised a large portion of Dr. Friedenberg’s caseload and they were some of the only critical veterinary diseases with a heritable component. He wondered how veterinarians could predict immune-mediated disease in dogs and a career combining genetics, immune-mediated disease, and emergency medicine was underway.
Dr. Friedenberg then completed his PhD under the mentorship of CHF-funded researcher, Dr. Kate Meurs, at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Meurs is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine in Cardiology and earned a PhD in Genetics from Texas A&M University. Her research focus is the genetics of cardiovascular disease in companion animals, particularly cardiomyopathy. (Read about Dr. Meurs’ latest CHF-funded Grant 02531: Identification of Genetic Risk Allele(s) Associated with the Development of Tricuspid Valve Dysplasia in the Labrador Retriever.) She suggested the CHF Clinician-Scientist Fellowship Program to Dr. Friedenberg, and the resulting educational grant helped provide funding for this promising researcher to complete an independent project exploring the genetic mutations associated with two common canine immune-mediated diseases – Addison’s Disease and Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA).
“The AKC Canine Health Foundation is one of only a few organizations funding research strictly for the sake of dogs,” states Friedenberg. “That’s appealing to me as a clinician and someone who really wants to improve the health of dogs.”
Addison’s Disease occurs when the immune system attacks the outer layer of the adrenal glands, leaving the body deficient in hormones which regulate the stress response and water/electrolyte balance. Affected dogs may experience waxing and waning symptoms of lethargy, decreased appetite, and vomiting/diarrhea or they may have a life-threatening Addisonian crisis which requires emergency treatment. Addison’s Disease can be treated with medications but requires lifelong hormone replacement therapy.
Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA) occurs when the immune system attacks and destroys red blood cells. The resulting anemia can have a slow onset or can happen suddenly creating a medical emergency for the affected dog. Treatment involves identifying and treating the underlying cause when possible, blood transfusions and immune-suppressive medications to combat the ongoing red blood cell destruction.
After completing his PhD and Clinician-Scientist Fellowship, Dr. Friedenberg moved to Minnesota where he continues his research as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. He is the principal investigator for two active CHF grants.
- Grant 02428: Identifying the Disease-Defining Autoantibodies in Canine Addison's Disease provides funding to identify the antibodies targeting the adrenal glands in Standard Poodles, Portuguese Water Dogs, and English Cocker Spaniels with Addison's Disease. Since these autoantibodies are produced prior to the onset of clinical signs, their detection could provide a means for early diagnosis.
- Grant 02348: Whole Blood Transcriptome Profiling of Dogs with Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA) provides funding to compare the genes that are activated in the blood of healthy dogs and those recently diagnosed with IMHA. Understanding which genes are turned on in the early stages of IMHA provides a biomarker for early detection and a potential treatment target.
“The genetics of Addison’s Disease is much more complex than we originally thought,” Dr. Friedenberg admits. “While it’s challenging, a better understanding of these complex, polygenetic traits has real potential to improve outcomes for affected dogs.”
Sample collection is nearing completion for both projects. Data analysis and publication will follow. Attendees at the 2019 AKC Canine Health Foundation National Parent Club Canine Health Conference were excited to learn of early progress in autoantibody detection in Addison’s Disease as presented by Dr. Friedenberg.
Since its launch in 2013, participation in CHF’s Clinician-Scientist Fellowship Program has helped guide the career trajectory of thirty intelligent and caring canine health researchers like Dr. Friedenberg. “The financial support for an independent research project early in my career definitely solidified my interest in canine health research,” Dr. Friedenberg states. “Working with the AKC Canine Health Foundation also connected me with breed clubs and a network for sample collection and discussion of high priority canine health concerns. My continued involvement in CHF grant writing and review encourages excellence in my grant making.”
All of these qualities contribute to leadership in canine health research and help sustain future advancements in canine health that often also translate to human health. The AKC Canine Health Foundation and its donors remain committed to encouraging the next generation of canine health researchers so that our mission to prevent, treat and cure canine disease can endure for years to come.
Learn more and support the Clinician-Scientist Fellowship Program at www.akcchf.org/fellows.
Help Future Generations of Dogs
Participate in canine health research by providing samples or by enrolling in a clinical trial. Samples are needed from healthy dogs and dogs affected by specific diseases.