Companion Animal Expert Joins Iowa State University Faculty

April 18th, 2005

The road Matthew Ellinwood took to Iowa is a long and winding one. It began in Arizona, with stops in Massachusetts, Missouri, Colorado, Pennsylvania and France. Last Oct. 1, he settled into Iowa State's animal science department.

"His research on genetic diseases in dogs will blend well with others in the department and elsewhere on campus who are working on animal genomics," said Maynard Hogberg, animal science department chair.

Hogberg said Ellinwood's expertise in companion animals also made him a good fit for the new position. "It was evident by the growing number of students interested in companion animals that our department needed to expand in this area," Hogberg said.

The department has had a sophomore-level class and a senior-level seminar devoted to companion animals for many years, but never a faculty member with specific expertise in that area. Now Ellinwood teaches the sophomore class and plans to develop some graduate-level courses. Iowa State is one of only a few universities in the United States to have a companion animal specialist on its animal science faculty.

"The companion animal industry is a $30 billion-a-year business," Ellinwood said. "In terms of Iowa State's educational mission, it makes sense to offer more opportunities for the growing number of young people interested in small animal veterinary medicine and careers in the companion animal industry."

Traditional agriculture students often find careers in livestock feed and drug companies. "Those same sorts of opportunities exist in companion animals," he said.

Ellinwood was born and raised in Phoenix and attended high school in Concord, Mass. He chose Washington University in St. Louis for his undergraduate work, earning a degree in 1985 in classics and art history.

But he wasn't satisfied. "I had a childhood ambition to be a veterinarian. That was derailed during my high school years by a love of art," Ellinwood said. "But I realized I couldn't have the kind of impact on the world that I wanted."

He spent two years at the University of Arizona before being accepted into the veterinary medicine program at Colorado State University. While at Arizona, he developed an interest in genetic diseases and dog breeding, and spent a summer as an intern at the San Diego Zoo.

Ellinwood earned his doctorate of veterinary medicine in 1997 and a doctorate in physiology in 2000, working mainly on cattle genetics. During a residency at the University of Pennsylvania, he found the opportunity he was looking for to make a difference.

Ellinwood and others identified a genetic mutation that causes a fatal disease in dogs. The same disease occurs annually in one out of every 73,000 human births. "It's a devastating disease. I saw that if we could better understand this genetic disease in dogs, the work could someday help humans," he said.

Mucopolysaccharidoses (MPS) are genetic disorders caused by the body's inability to produce specific enzymes. A naturally occurring canine form, MPS IIIB, was identified in two Schipperke dogs whose cases had been referred to the University of Pennsylvania. There are 11 genetic diseases known as MPS disorders.

There is no cure for the disease. In humans, the signs of MPS are related to mental deterioration. By 3 to 6 years of age, affected children start to show delayed development, followed by mental retardation and dementia. In the last stages of the disease, children lose the ability to walk or feed themselves. Most die at a young age.

The disease impacts dogs in similar ways. Clinical signs in dogs appear between 2 and 4 years of age, and include tremors, head tilts and difficulty balancing and walking.

Once the gene mutation was identified, a DNA testing program for Schipperke dogs was established. One thousand DNA samples were submitted in the first three months.

"The response was tremendous, very gratifying. We found a high carrier rate among the breeding population," Ellinwood said. "For the most part, breeders now have eliminated this disease in Schipperkes by making the appropriate breeding choices."

The DNA testing is an ongoing service offered by the University of Pennsylvania. The research on the disease in dogs came to Iowa State with Ellinwood.

"We are not yet at a stage where what we learn in the dogs can be applied to humans, but that's my goal," he said. When that time comes, Ellinwood expects medical researchers will apply the knowledge he has gained to humans.

"Dogs are important models for human disease. I'm looking for ways to eliminate diseases in dogs that also will benefit humans," he said.

Contacts: 

Matthew Ellinwood, Animal Science, (515) 294-5136, mellinwo@iastate.edu
Susan Thompson, Communications Service, (515) 294-0705, sander@iastate.edu