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“Novel Blood Tests in Dogs with Heart Disease”

Rachel Cohen, 2010, Veterinary Medicine

During the summer of 2010, I spent 10 weeks researching canine heart disease under Dr. Mark Oyama of the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program.

A large number of Dr. Oyama’s projects are looking at biomarkers for canine heart disease. Many biomarkers are suspected to be possible prognostic indicators that could help aid in the diagnosis and treatment of patients. NT-proBNP is a known biomarker for heart disease in dogs, and is often used to confirm a diagnosis of heart disease.

In this study, we were looking to see whether NT-proBNP is indeed a viable biomarker for heart disease, despite confounds such as exercise and stress. Healthy dogs presenting to veterinary practices for examination are often stressed and/or have recently experienced some degree of physical activity (walking, trotting, etc) prior to examination. It was not known whether routine physical activity could elevate plasma levels of NT-proBNP and cause false positive results in healthy dogs. We sought to determine whether healthy dogs experienced concentrations of NTproBNP above the upper normal reference value for heart disease (900 pmol/L) after routine exercise. We were pleased to see that not a single healthy dog’s NT-proBNP level reached above the 900 pmol/L cutoff for heart disease.

As a pre-vet student, I gained incredibly valuable experience working hands-on with dogs in the cardiology department this summer. Although I have experience working in a veterinary setting, I had never worked in a large specialty hospital before PURM, and this was a unique opportunity. I spent a good deal of time learning and shadowing throughout the summer. I assisted with and shadowed all procedures that were done on patients in my study, including restraint, blood draw, echocardiogram, ECG, Doppler blood pressure, and in some cases chest radiographs. I processed the blood samples from patients and logged them in large spreadsheets.

Later we shipped several samples to a private company to measure the concentrations of certain biomarkers, but I also got to run ELISA immunoassays to examine the levels of a few others. So far, I have enrolled 15 dogs in my study, and I have helped enroll several others in our other studies. I also shadowed nearly 50 comprehensive cardiology appointments throughout the summer, and four large surgical procedures including a balloon valvuloplasty and the insertion of a pacemaker. I was able to ascult every patient and shadow each echocardiogram, including ones we did on a chinchilla and a skunk. Over the summer, I learned some of the ways to grade heart murmurs, and the doctors and students taught me how to recognize which valves were defective. Because so many rotations of students came through cardiology, I was able to start learning all over again every two weeks, and quickly picked up some of the cardiology lingo. By the end of the summer, I could decipher some ECG patterns and what various conditions look like on an echocardiogram.

I also learned a lot about clinical research and what career trajectories I might be interested in pursuing. I now see the appeal of academic medicine as a profession, and am certainly considering research as I consider career options. My PURM experience also solidified my desire to attend veterinary school and pursue a career in small animal medicine. I am now equipped with dozens of mentors and the guidance I will need to pursue my emerging academic goals.

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