The vet who wants to eradicate rabies and learn about human disease

Professor Richard Mellanby is a FLIER Programme participant, Professor of Comparative Medicine and Head of Companion Animal Sciences at the University of Edinburgh where he researches nutrition and health.

I graduated as a vet in 1998 and practiced in Newcastle for a few years. After that, I undertook specialist training in small animal medicine and then a PhD in experimental models of diabetes.

Twelve years ago, I joined the University of Edinburgh to work in clinical science and to continue to study animal models of autoimmune diseases, particularly mouse models of multiple sclerosis. Since then I’ve taken up leadership roles in the veterinary school and more recently become Professor of Comparative Medicine.

I try to understand diseases in animals, but also how animals can be models for human disease. I study the influence of nutrition on health outcomes, in particular the role of vitamin D in non-skeletal disease in humans and animals.

We’ve known for more than 100 years that humans need vitamin D for bone health but there is also research ongoing into links between vitamin D deficiency and multiple sclerosis, for example, and in infectious diseases such as TB. High vitamin D can also be a problem in people who take supplements.

I’m really glad that the Academy of Medical Sciences is including vets in the FLIER Programme. There is a great deal of commonality between human and animal health, so it’s a two-way street. There is also great potential for developing better animal models for medical research, which could mean we use fewer experimental animals in the future.

I applied for the programme because it offered opportunities to work with a different group of people, to gain a proper understanding of leadership and to become a more effective leader.

The programme has already given me time away from my institute to discuss problems and consider more sophisticated leadership approaches. I’ve already developed my skills in collaborative leadership, and I hope I can create a more effective team of people who are more engaged and have higher job satisfaction.

I have two topics in mind for a project in the second half of the programme. One is in diagnostics where my colleagues and I have developed a range of new tests for important canine diseases, such as liver, renal and pancreas disorders, that we are keen to roll out. Hopefully the industry contacts the programme brings could help with this.

The second idea is around rabies eradication. I’m very involved in a project to reduce the incidence of rabies in dogs and humans in parts of India and in sub-Saharan Africa. We’ve had great success in local areas in Malawi and in Goa State, India. What we’re now trying to do is upscale this to a country-wide elimination strategy.

I would hope the use the FLIER Programme to gain high-level engagement with key global decision-makers. Rabies is a disease we can actually eradicate. We know how to do that through dog vaccination. We just need to try and get the up-front investment to expand our activities into national elimination programmes. We’re going to save that money many times over in the years to come. I’m very keen to get better at persuading major decision makers that up-front investment to address this problem is money well-spent.

Whichever project I settle on, I’m very grateful for this opportunity.

Professor Richard Mellanby is a participant in Round 1 of the Academy of Medical Sciences’ FLIER Programme, a unique programme that will develop leaders of the future who can create collaborations across academia, industry, the NHS and government to drive innovation.

The FLIER Programme is generously supported by the Dennis and Mireille Gillings Foundation and the Government Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ‘Investment in Research Talent’ fund. If you would like to support the work of the Academy to develop talented researchers, visit our Supporters page.

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