Going Viral

Researcher elected to prestigious National Academy of Sciences for insights into felines viruses

As one of the nation’s leading veterinary researchers, Dr. Sue VandeWoude studies the ecology of infectious disease: how a virus emerges and spreads within and between species, triggering illness in individuals and mutating to become more dangerous as it goes, ultimately affecting an entire ecosystem.

The subject is central to understanding human and animal disease – and disease prevention. As author David Quammen wrote in his acclaimed book, Spillover, “The subject of animal disease and the subject of human disease are, as we’ll see, strands of one braided cord.”

With a topic that big, VandeWoude starts small. Often with feline immunodeficiency virus. The virus occurs naturally in cats, infecting up to 3 percent of U.S. housecats; it likewise infects wild species, including bobcats and mountain lions, whose habitats attract a mounting number of people.

Feline immunodeficiency virus is fascinating for a few reasons, said VandeWoude, a Colorado State University veterinarian and professor of comparative medicine, who also serves as associate dean for research in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The first, like her title, is rooted in comparison: Feline immunodeficiency virus is specific to cats, yet is strikingly similar to HIV in people – in its structure, how it replicates once lodged in cells, and in the deadly opportunistic illnesses that follow infection. So, study of the feline virus offers critical clues in the global medical battle against HIV/AIDS, as VandeWoude and co-authors describe in a recent research paper, “Applications of the FIV Model to Study HIV Pathogenesis,” published in the journal Viruses. The paper’s underlying research, like much of VandeWoude’s work, was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, a sign of relevance for human medicine.

Dr. Sue VandeWoude studies the ecology of infectious disease.
Dr. Sue VandeWoude studies feline viruses and is the 11th Colorado State researcher elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. She is pictured in a foothills setting where virus hosts, including housecats and mountain lions, often cross paths. Photo by Mary Neiberg

The feline virus is important for another reason: Tracking its spread – from housecats to bobcats and mountain lions – is one way to understand the impact of people and urbanization on the natural environment. When pet cats wander from home into abutting open space, foothills, and forests, their viruses go with them. And when those housecats become meals for wild cats, a well-known concern for pet owners in the West, the door to viral transmission is wide open. In fact, feline immunodeficiency virus inserts itself in the DNA of infected cats, providing genetic proof of cross-species transmission.

VandeWoude follows the routes of feline immunodeficiency virus and related viruses by analyzing genetic data derived from tissue and blood samples drawn from cats in the wild and shared among scientists nationwide. She has been surprised to see, at a molecular level, the influence of human encroachment on the natural world and the health consequences for wildlife.

“We’re changing the dynamics of whole ecosystems,” VandeWoude said.

Her studies have shown, for instance, that feline leukemia virus frequently spreads from domestic cats to endangered Florida panthers in and around the Everglades, leading to the deaths of panthers whose population is on the edge of extinction, now estimated at just 125 individuals, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

“As our communities grow, that growth has direct consequences for wildlife that bump into people and people that bump into animals. It can even impact the survivability of a keystone species with a critical role in ecosystem function,” said VandeWoude, whose studies have focused on wild and domestic feline populations from the southern tip of Florida to the hillsides of Los Angeles. “Understanding disease dynamics is part of our broader discussions about conservation because supporting a diversity of species creates a more balanced and healthy ecosystem.”

For her influential contributions to research, VandeWoude was elected in April to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors an American scientist can receive. The scholars are selected by peers and serve as scientific advisers to the nation, providing independent, research-based information to shape public policy on matters related to science and technology. In many cases, membership has been a stepping stone to the Nobel Prizes, an indication of the academy’s prestige and its contributions to new knowledge.

VandeWoude is the 11th professor from Colorado State University to join the National Academy of Sciences (an additional seven CSU professors have been elected to the affiliated National Academy of Engineering). She is also the second woman to join from CSU, elected one year after famed environmental scientist Diana Wall, who investigates Antarctic soil ecology as a barometer of climate change.

Wall was attending the academy’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., to be formally inducted as a new member when VandeWoude’s election was announced. Wall was jubilant. “The academy has had so few women that it is awesome to see them inducting more – it’s way beyond time – and it’s thrilling to see Sue join. That her science is recognized on such a high level is just fantastic. She has a broad perspective, working not only at the level of viral mechanisms, but then asking, ‘What does that mean for the environment and the world?’

Elliott Chiu, a scholar in the University’s D.V.M./Ph.D. program, is a VandeWoude mentee and studies feline viruses in her laboratory.
Elliott Chiu, a scholar in the University’s D.V.M./Ph.D. program, is a VandeWoude mentee and studies feline viruses in her laboratory. Photo: William A. Cotton / Colorado State University

“Sue is a top scientist, highly recognized nationally and internationally, so this is a real feather in CSU’s cap,” Wall added.

VandeWoude is one of just a handful of scientists to have received the Excellence in Research Award from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges for the caliber of her medical research and leadership in the scientific community. The award citation commended VandeWoude for her work as principal investigator on grants totaling some $10 million and for authoring more than 100 research papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

In one of her most important contributions to CSU, VandeWoude in 2012 led the campus in joining the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, a project spearheaded by medical doctors at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. The partnership allows scientists at the two universities to combine their brain power in investigating diseases that occur naturally in both human and animal patients – such as cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, and joint ailments – paving the way to quicker, more effective treatments for all. The concept of translational medicine is gaining global traction as researchers better understand commonalities in diseases diagnosed in pets and people, and further see that collaboration will turbocharge the quest for cures.

VandeWoude also has overseen the growth of the University’s combined D.V.M./Ph.D. program to one of the best in the world. The program prepares new medical researchers by conferring both veterinary and doctoral degrees – a combination that uniquely positions young scientists to investigate animal health and its relevance to human health.

Elliott Chiu, a scholar in the combined degree program, has worked in VandeWoude’s research laboratory for six years and, like his mentor, is fascinated by feline viruses and the ecology of infectious disease. VandeWoude has focused and inspired his research into feline leukemia virus, Chiu said. She has supported his efforts to author and publish four research papers, with more in the pipeline, a meaningful sign of his early input to a growing body of knowledge.

“Sue collaborates with so many people and has the ability to truly understand fields and ask meaningful questions that place her expertise in a larger context,” Chiu said. “It’s something everyone in the lab has talked about hoping we can someday rise to do.”