A Veterinary Scientist’s Success Story — Dr. Carrie Finno, D.V.M., Ph.D.

Grey horse

“Veterinary researchers bring a unique perspective and training to the medical field that complements the training of physicians and Ph.D. basic researchers…it is a unique collaborative approach,” declares veterinary scientist Dr. Carrie Finno from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). Dr. Finno, who holds both D.V.M. and Ph.D. degrees, describes what being a veterinary scientist means to her. Her commitment to research is apparent in her academic accomplishments, which have been recognized nationally and internationally. She has received several prestigious awards for her outstanding contributions to advancing translational equine research. Dr. Finno’s career path began with her childhood love for animals, particularly horses. She recounts that at the age of 9 her father, an attorney, cautioned her against taking horseback-riding lessons because it was “illegal” for someone at her age. However, the following year, Dr. Finno’s father signed her up for horseback-riding lessons and today her father and mother are her biggest supporters; Dr. Finno recognizes that their encouragement helped her to chase her dreams. Her childhood enthusiasm for animals extended into adulthood. She completed both her D.V.M. in 2004 and an internship in Large Animal Medicine and Surgery in 2006 at the University of Minnesota (UMN). She then obtained a Ph.D. in comparative pathology from the University of California, Davis in 2012. During this time, Dr. Finno became interested in biomedical research, a fact that she credits to her former mentor and academic “mom,” Dr. Stephanie Valberg (UMN). Dr. Finno views this relationship as being instrumental in her decision to pursue a career as a veterinary scientist.

Dr. Finno attributes her recent academic achievements to the support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 2013 at the end of her postdoctoral training at UC Davis, she was awarded a Special Emphasis Research Career Award (SERCA) K01 in Pathology and Comparative Medicine.1 The SERCA award helped secure her current position as an assistant professor in the Population Health and Reproduction Department at UC Davis. Dr. Finno adds, “The support and mentorship that I received from the (NIH) Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (ORIP) K01 award has been the most influential event in my career to date. With this award, I was able to transition into a faculty position at the number one veterinary school in the world, where my team continues to unravel the role of vitamin E in the developing nervous system.” Dr. Finno’s work has resulted in 42 scientific articles, several invitations to present her work, and more than 5 book chapters.2 She even has a YouTube video!3 Dr. Finno recently received tenure at UC Davis and is the Director for the Center for Equine Health (CEH). She also serves as the Principal Investigator of an ongoing project that is the current focus of her research.

Dr. Carrie Finno and her horse Ruthie
Dr. Finno stands next to “Ruthie” that was diagnosed with the neurological disorder, neuroaxonal dystrophy, at the UC Davis Center for Equine Health.

Dr. Finno’s interest in neurological disorders stem from her previous experience treating a horse named “Chocolatte.” This animal that was groomed to be a show horse arrived at the CEH exhibiting unexplainable hind limb lameness. After a series of medical tests that confirmed vitamin E deficiency, Dr. Finno and other veterinary specialists suspected neuroaxonal dystrophy, a neurological disease that can affect both horses and humans. Unfortunately, this animal did not respond to vitamin E treatment and had to be euthanized. Neuroaxonal dystrophy was confirmed post mortem. Dr. Finno recalls the challenges of explaining this diagnosis to Justin, the 13-year old boy who owned Chocolatte and of not having a genetic-based test to accurately diagnose this illness while Chocolatte was alive. She notes that this experience “lit a fire” in her to identify the developmental mechanisms of neuroaxonal dystrophy and the role played by vitamin E in this disease process.4–6   

Dr. Finno is interested in determining the molecular pathogenesis of neuroaxonal dystrophy that is associated with a mutation of the gene encoding alpha tocopherol (the most biologically active form of vitamin E) transfer protein (TTPA). TTPA is important for maintaining neuromuscular health and a mutation of this gene causes ataxia with vitamin E deficiency (AVED) in humans. The goal of her research is to identify genetic-based targets for novel therapeutics and diagnostics for neuroaxonal dystrophy. Dr. Finno aspires to be an independent scientist continuing her research on the genetic basis of AVED after the completion of her SERCA award.

Offered through ORIP’s Division of Comparative Medicine, SERCA awards provide training and career programs for veterinarians with a D.V.M. or Veterinariae Medicinae Doctoris (V.M.D.) and a Ph.D. degree. Highlighting the uniqueness of the award, SERCAs exclusively target early-career veterinarians with an interest in biomedical research. Through the SERCA mechanism, research-oriented veterinarians are trained to become independent biomedical scientists. Awardees study animal disease models, normative biology, and disease pathogenesis, to name a few of the funded areas of research. SERCA awards from ORIP provide 5 years of support to allow recipients to develop their core capabilities in basic, applied, or clinical biomedical research. When asked what advice she would give to the next generation of veterinarians interested in applying for SERCA, Dr. Finno suggests that they select NIH-funded mentors with previous experience mentoring K awardees and that individuals begin preparing their application packet 6 months to 1 year before the due date. Last, but certainly not the least, she advises that applicants pursue the science that they are passionate about.

For more information on the SERCA K01 award or ORIP, please visit their website.

 

References

1https://orip.nih.gov/orip-serca-guidelines.

2http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/faculty/results.cfm?fid=22055

3https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5q4L0v-vIiM.

4Finno CJ, Famula T, Aleman M, Higgins RJ, Madigan JE, Bannasch DL. Pedigree analysis and exclusion of alpha-tocopherol transfer protein (TTPA) as a candidate gene for neuroaxonal dystrophy in the American quarter horse. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. 2013;27(1):177–185.

5Finno CJ, Kaese HJ, Miller AD, Gianino G, Divers T, Valberg SJ. Pigment retinopathy in warmblood horses with equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy and equine motor neuron disease. Veterinary Ophthalmology. 2017;20(4):304–309.

6    Finno CJ, Bordbari MH, Valberg SJ, Lee D, Herron J, Hines K, et al. Transcriptome profiling of equine vitamin E deficient neuroaxonal dystrophy identifies upregulation of liver X receptor target genes. Free Radical Biology and Medicine. 2016;101:261–271.