The art of collaborative research

Dr. Baljit Singh,

Dr. Baljit Singh, associate dean of research at the WCVM. Photo: David Stobbe.

Years of dealing with complicated, multifactorial diseases such as endotoxemia in horses has taught the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Dr. Baljit Singh that the best approach to finding solutions is multidisciplinary teamwork.

“If you’re going to develop new ideas or find new treatments, it’s going to be through collaboration with people who are away from your field,” says Singh, whose scientific approach often involves assembling teams of people with various areas of expertise.

The art of collaborative research first came to Singh’s attention when he was a PhD student in biomedical sciences at the University of Guelph. He observed his supervisor working with various people in clinical sciences and realized it was a very fruitful way of doing science.

“It’s a great way to maximize your resources, especially when dealing with a very complex disease,” he says. “The days of one person trying to solve a major problem are nearly gone. It just doesn’t work anymore.”

Singh’s main objectives for his team at the WCVM include understanding the inflammatory process and how the lungs are involved in this process in various species. “Overall, we’re trying to find the underlying mechanisms of disease and looking for a target where we can potentially interfere with the disease process.”

But before Singh can begin studying a disease, he must first learn everything there is to know about it. And the best people to go to for this information are the clinicians – veterinarians treating patients with disease every day.

Singh often consults with clinicians Dr. Hugh Townsend, an equine internal medicine specialist, and Dr. David Wilson, an equine surgeon, before launching an equine health investigation. “I don’t have the time that I’d like to fully understand the clinical scenario of a particular disease,” Singh says. “That’s when I meet with a clinician working on a specific problem. Then I can see how the basic science can help to understand that problem.”

One common equine disease that Singh’s team is currently investigating is laminitis. “Laminitis has defied understanding forever. We still don’t know what initiates it and why we can’t control it once it gets underway,” says Singh, who plans to study the connection between the onset of laminitis and what happens in organs such as the lungs and liver.

His team wrapped up a project last year that studied recurrent airway obstruction (RAO or heaves) in horses, another common inflammatory disease. And they recently received funding for a new project to study the immune system of the lungs as the horse develops from a foal to an adult – a project that involves a number of WCVM faculty including Drs. Fernando Marques, Matthew Loewen, Tanya Duke, and Hugh Townsend.

Typically, Singh has about seven to 12 people working with him in his lab. The team consists of a mix of graduate and undergraduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows and lab technicians. While many of the students are from the veterinary college, there are some from biology, chemistry and other university science programs.

And although much of the teams’ senior investigators are directly involved in the veterinary medicine field, there are members representing other disciplines. Dr. Hicham Fenniri, a supramolecular chemist who specializes in nanotechnology, has been collaborating with Singh on investigations into the use of nanomedicine as a disease treatment for almost eight years.

Another big player in the ongoing study of endotoxemia is Dr. Sarabjeet Suri, a postdoctoral fellow and molecular biologist who initially worked with plants before making the switch to animal research.

Even though their backgrounds are so diverse, this team of researchers shares common interests when it comes to working on various aspects of different problems.

“It’s all about curiosity. We’re all curious about processes we don’t understand,” says Singh. “And at the end of the day, we want to save animals and create a better life for animals. This drives us, all of us.”

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