‘I want a DNA database for all dogs and cats in the Netherlands’
Interview | Dr Hille Fieten, associate professor and researcher at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
Eliminate hereditary diseases and harmful traits in dogs and cats. That is the mission of researcher and specialist Dr Hille Fieten, also coordinator of the Expertise Centre Genetics of Companion Animals in Utrecht. According to her, more than half of the diseases in these animals can be prevented by a better breeding policy.
Fieten’s interest in hereditary diseases arose during her PhD research. That focused on the genetic origin of copper toxicosis, an inherited metabolic disease in Labrador retrievers. ‘Gradually, I became more and more captivated by my research’, Fieten says. ‘I discovered that with research, you can also have a real impact on society. That became my main goal.’ That impact extends beyond dogs: copper accumulation also occurs in humans.
Making a difference for animals and people
‘I presented my research at a congress in Baltimore’, says Fieten. ‘There I got talking to patients who told me about psychiatric disorders and liver cirrhosis caused by copper toxicosis. There were also people whose babies had died due to copper metabolic disease. That impressed me a lot.’ Fieten explains that purebred dogs and humans share the same disease-causing genes. ‘But because people are genetically very diverse, it is difficult to detect these kinds of genes in them. In purebred dogs, it is much easier. This is because they are highly inbred and have mostly the same genes. That makes it much easier to find out which genes in dogs cause hereditary diseases.’ This enabled Fieten to identify the disease gene for copper toxicosis and created a valuable genetic dataset of inbred dogs. ‘Such a dataset is a treasure trove for veterinary and human researchers. At the same time, it is incredibly harsh that this high level of inbreeding is the cause of a lot of avoidable animal suffering.’
DNA database for dogs and cats
Specialist training came after the PhD. In addition to her research, Fieten works as a specialist at the University Animal Hospital. ‘At the outpatient clinic, I see animals with hereditary diseases and harmful external features, such as short snouts, every day. Problems that are difficult to treat and could have been prevented with responsible breeding. That is why at the Genetics Expertise Centre we not only do research, but also develop practical tools for vets and breeders. Examples are a PET scan for monitoring disorders and Fit2Breed for creating healthy breeding combinations based on genetic data.’ As far as Fieten is concerned, it doesn’t stop there. ‘I eventually want a DNA database for all dogs and cats in the Netherlands. Animals are already chipped and get a passport. So it’s not such a big step to collect DNA data as well.’
Concrete breeding standards
It is up to the government to create such a database. Fieten is optimistic about society’s commitment to animal welfare and healthy breeding: ‘I admire the fact that the then agriculture minister Carola Schouten took the step to let us draw up concrete breeding standards that made enforcement of existing legislation possible. Also, more and more vets are stopping fertility counselling for unhealthy animals. In the early days of the Genetics Expertise Centre, it was not always easy to explain why our work was necessary. Meanwhile, together with a growing group of colleagues, we managed to find parties outside the university willing to support us. Thanks to research grants, including a Veni grant, government grants and donations from social partners through the Friends of Veterinary Medicine fund, the Genetics Expertise Centre has now grown into a solid team of fantastic people with one shared mission: healthy and social animals.’
Always encouraged by others
Not a bad result for someone who previously did not believe she could become a veterinarian. ‘In a career choice test at secondary school, I entered that I wanted to become a veterinary assistant. Then came the question: why not become a vet? I thought: I can’t do that at all, can I?’ She could. Later in her academic career, too, there were always people encouraging Fieten. For example, to sign up for the Leadership Programme at Cornell. Or to also take a master’s in Genetic Epidemiology in Rotterdam during her PhD. Without all that knowledge, she would never have been able to find the gene that causes copper toxicosis in Labrador retrievers. Now Fieten likes to encourage young people herself. ‘There are so many talented people here at the faculty. I give them the advice I was also given so often: you can do more than you think, grab your chance and go for it!’
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