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CVM Student Receives $5,000
Research Grant

Alexa Personett, a second-year student at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, has been named a 2015 Morris Animal Foundation Veterinary Student Scholar. The highly competitive program provides veterinary students an opportunity to become involved in mentored research that enhances the health and welfare of companion animals and wildlife. Personett will receive a $5,000 grant from the foundation.

Through the program, Personett will spend her summer researching canine airway microbiota in chronic bronchitis. Until recently, she said, the lungs were considered a sterile organ without the presence of bacteria. However, it has now been shown in humans that the lungs harbor their own community of beneficial bacteria, similar to the gut. These beneficial bacteria, called the airway microbiota, are believed to have necessary functions that maintain the health of the lungs, such as supporting the immune system and fighting off harmful bacteria. If these beneficial bacteria are reduced, harmful bacteria may invade and cause disease.

“In humans, the bacterial populations are different in healthy lungs compared to those with respiratory diseases like asthma or COPD,” Personett said. “The project I will be working on involves determining the airway microbiota in dogs diagnosed with chronic bronchitis and comparing it to the microbiota that is present in healthy dogs.”

Personett’s research project will be conducted under the guidance of two faculty mentors, Aaron Ericsson, DVM, PhD, and Carol Reinero, DVM, PhD. Ericsson, an assistant research professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, is the director of the MU Metagenomics Center and the lead scientist for microbiota research for the Mutant Mouse Resource and Research Center and Rat Resource and Research Center. Reinero is an associate professor of small animal internal medicine and the director of the MU Comparative Internal Medicine Laboratory.

“To our knowledge, it will be the first study to determine the microbiota that is present in the canine airways using advanced sequencing technologies,” Personett said. “It will be the first step in determining if respiratory disease in dogs is linked to an imbalance of bacterial populations, which will provide novel information relevant to the disease process of chronic bronchitis. I am also very excited by the clinical applications the results of the study could supply, as we may be able to provide alternative treatments for this disease.”

Chronic bronchitis is a common and irreversible respiratory disorder that affects all breeds of dogs. Unfortunately, steroids must be given lifelong to reduce clinical signs and airway inflammation.

“The results of this study could potentially lead to the development of new, alternative treatments for pet dogs with chronic bronchitis by shifting the airway bacteria toward the growth of beneficial bacteria,” Personett said. “It is well known that the gut microbiota plays an important role in intestinal health, so it is very likely that the airway microbiota is also involved in maintaining the health of the respiratory system. This research study will serve as the basis for future studies to beneficially modulate the airway microbiota with probiotics, antibiotics or other immunomodulators.”

In conjunction with her project, Personett will be participating in the MU Veterinary Research Scholars Program for her second consecutive summer. As part of the VRSP, Personett will present her project at the Merial-NIH Veterinary Scholars Symposium this summer at the University of California, Davis.

Last summer Personett worked in the Lyons Feline and Comparative Genetics Laboratory, led by Leslie Lyons, PhD, the Gilbreath-McLorn Endowed Professor of Comparative Medicine. Personett assisted with an ongoing project to determine the genetic mutation that causes an inherited blindness in the Bengal cat breed.

Although Personett came to the CVM with the intention of becoming a small animal veterinarian in private practice, her research experience has made her aware of other career opportunities, she said.

“Now I am not sure exactly what I’d like to do with my career, but I know I would like to incorporate research in some way,” she said. “What I really enjoy about research is the thrill of problem solving and making new discoveries. With research, you are constantly learning and being exposed to things that aren’t typically taught in the classroom. What also excites me is that as veterinarians, we have a special skill set and knowledge base that allows us to not only improve animal health, but human health as well.”

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Last Update: February 29, 2012