Dr Conor O’Halloran – Full-Time Small Animal Vet

What or who inspired you to become a vet?

In all honesty I initially came across the possibility of a career in veterinary medicine almost entirely by accident. Nobody in my family is even vaguely medically minded and my Dad is so squeamish he has to turn away from watching Casualty most Saturday nights! However, we always had pets in the house when I was growing up; dogs, cats, rabbits and goldfish have all made their various appearances over the years and all of them had their own effect on me. When I was about 15 we unfortunately lost our much-loved dog under elective anaesthesia. We were completely devastated as a family but what made it bearable was how everyone at the practice, the vets, nurses and reception teams, was so amazing at handling the situation and explaining everything. It left a really lasting impression, which is why I asked if they would have me during the school holidays for work experience. I vividly remember the senior vets telling me that by the end of the first three weeks I would just “know” if being a vet was something I wanted to do – and they were completely right! I was then fortunate enough to have a lot of great support from my family and school during Sixth Form, with teachers really pushing me to help get the grades I needed and lots of help with writing my University application and preparing for the interviews; it was quite a big team effort to get there!

What is your current job? Do you hold clinics as well as carrying out research?

Right now I am working full time in a small animal vet practice in Edinburgh. I completed my PhD at the University of Edinburgh at the end of last year and recently successfully defended my thesis so I am still finishing off parts of the research and hope to publish more of the data in the near future. As part of my PhD, we established a referral service to help clinicians dealing with mycobacterial infections in practice; they provide us with data and samples for ongoing and new research (we never use challenge studies in our work) so I am glad that I can still be involved in helping with this.

What drew you to your field of study and what motivates you to continue?

At vet school my main interests were always infectious diseases and internal medicine, to the point where after my third year at Liverpool vet school I intercalated for a year at Edinburgh. I enrolled in the MSc in One Health at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies which really suited my interests in researching the close connections between human and animal health, wellness and disease. Of course zoonotic diseases were central to my interest in this. For my thesis I worked under the supervision of Prof. Mark Woolhouse whose work is focussed on the emergence of diseases into human and animal populations. Bringing a clinical veterinary focus to the research project was really interesting and for my dissertation I studied what biological factors, such as host infectivity, viral receptor use and immune avoidance strategies, differ between RNA viruses capable of infecting humans compared with those that are completely restricted to their animal hosts. Much of the funding for this area was made available in the wake of the emergence of SARS-CoV-1 less than a decade before and the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009; the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic shows just what a critical area of research this remains. Professor Woolhouse was a fantastic, highly motivational supervisor who really drove me to follow and develop my own interest in the topic and to explore research questions that I thought were important, not just to focus on his existing ideas. After my MSc it wasn’t a great surprise to many of my family or friends that it had inspired and encouraged me to take on a PhD after I graduated from vet school. I came across a BBSRC-funded CASE studentship working in partnership with Biobest Laboratories at the University of Edinburgh, this time supervised by Prof. Daniélle Gunn-Moore at the RDSVS and Prof. Jayne Hope at the Roslin Institute to study companion animal mycobacterial infections, including tuberculosis. I would have struggled to write a proposal for a PhD that suited my interests better, and it was with supervisors who I knew were the top experts in the field! I applied the same day and was lucky enough to be offered the position and headed up to University of Edinburgh for the second time. The experience has, without doubt, been as positive as I could have hoped; Daniélle and Jayne are both unbelievably inspirational researchers, scientists, teachers and mentors and the project outcomes have been plentiful, varied and hopefully helpful to both research scientists and clinicians in practice. For me, it isn’t as much trying to find the motivation to continue, I find it too difficult to stop!

Discuss the impact your research has had on the profession. How have those in general or referral practice benefited from your research?

Broadly, the impact of the recent research into companion animal mycobacterial diseases can be considered to be three-fold; firstly it aimed from the start to improve the diagnostic capacity to clinicians for the rapid and accurate diagnosis of mycobacterial infections in companion animals. These infections still remain very challenging to confirm and this is often one of the major hurdles, if not the biggest, for clinicians in practice. So we worked with our collaborators at Biobest Laboratories to successfully bring more diagnostics to clinicians. As well as these practical aspects, it was and remains important to conduct wider research into the pathophysiology and immunology of these infections in companion animals so that, in the future, this step-wise increase in our knowledge can be used to develop entirely novel targets for diagnostic tests and/or therapeutic interventions.

The second aspect was to increase the understanding of these diseases in a clinical setting; the first case report of feline mycobacteriosis in the UK was published less than 25 years ago so there is still a lot that we don’t know about the disease. This is why the publications generated by the work have been some of the most downloaded from the respective journal websites and why the referral advice service was established. Clinicians are certainly becoming more aware of the problem which is great for the health and welfare of animals.

The final aspect has had direct policy impact; for example, following an outbreak of tuberculosis in a kennel of hounds, the Animal By-Products legislation was reviewed to lower the risk of such an outbreak happening again.

Has your research served as the foundation for other studies or developments in the field, and what will happen after your study is complete?

Research into companion animal mycobacterial disease is still ongoing; there are researchers both at Edinburgh and across the world investigating these diseases and there is much more to discover yet.

Tell us a little about your own experience. What does your research mean to you personally and what have you gained from it?

I really enjoy the problem-solving aspects of both research and clinical practice. In some ways they are very similar whilst in others they are quite different; for example the timescales are orders of magnitude apart, but I get a really strong sense of satisfaction from both – especially when lots of hard work pays off to get to an answer. Much like in practice, in research things don’t always go to plan; experiments don’t work or the results are nowhere near what was predicted. Although this makes research challenging where the funding is time-limited, I like to think I have become more resilient to dealing with problems that arise and coping when things don’t go to plan.

Scientific research is also hugely collaborative. One researcher in a laboratory isn’t able to achieve much on their own. My research involved working with people from different institutions, government departments and scientists from all over the world which was a really valuable experience for me.

What is your favourite aspect of your work, and what has been your most important/surprising finding?

I particularly enjoy the mixture of clinical and scientific research and how these two aspects feed into each other. The clinical parts to the work mean that the research makes a tangible difference to patients in clinics; for example, we know that the long-term rates for positive outcomes for feline mycobacterial cases have doubled in the UK in the last ten years which is brilliant progress. This is only possible by using the research to answer fundamental scientific questions regarding these infections and companion animal responses to them which can then feed back into the clinic and the process starts again.

One of the most surprising findings was that the diagnostic test that has been used to detect tuberculosis in cattle and humans for many years – the tuberculin skin test – is almost entirely useless in both cats and dogs but the immune response of both species is relatively conserved. Therefore, it has been possible to use these research findings to develop diagnostic tests which are now available to clinicians.

The most important publications arising from the research have probably been the two that report on the outbreaks of tuberculosis in kennelled foxhounds and raw-fed cats. These have been downloaded tens of thousands of times and have resulted in changes to legislation.

What does PetSavers offer the profession in your opinion?

PetSavers’ funding is a great initiative to give much-needed money to necessary clinical research projects. These funding opportunities are simply not available from many other sources and so it makes a huge contribution to the veterinary literature. By also funding student projects, PetSavers provides research opportunities to undergraduates who would not otherwise be able to undertake such in-depth and high-quality projects; therefore it inspires and encourages the next generation of clinical researchers.

Away from the practice and bench, how do you spend your spare time?

In the kitchen! I find cooking really relaxing but I enjoy taking time in the kitchen in an afternoon or evening – it is a welcome change of pace from the practice and research.

What advice would you give to vets considering carrying out clinical research for the first time?

My advice would absolutely be to just go for it. Without a doubt, if there is anyone who isn’t sure if they really want to try research or not, then jump in and give it a try. It will very quickly grab you, or not, and that can be just as useful sometimes.

I would be prepared to bet that there are lots of vets who haven’t considered research before but who have always had interesting questions that they would like to answer. If that is the case then it can be a very rewarding experience to get involved with research to start to answer some of these unknowns.