Dr. Sharon Witonsky, of Blacksburg, Va., and associate professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, was honored with the Pfizer Award for Research Excellence during the college’s recent 2006 Research Symposium.

The Pfizer award, established in 1985, is a nationally recognized award sponsored by Pfizer Animal Health, a division of healthcare giant, Pfizer, Inc. The purpose of this award is to “foster innovative research, on which the scientific advancement of the profession depends, by recognizing outstanding research effort and productivity.”

Witonsky was nominated for this prestigious award by Dr. David S. Lindsay, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology and internationally recognized veterinary parasitologist. “Dr. Witonsky is a tireless researcher and fully deserves the recognition that would come from the Pfizer Award,” wrote Lindsay in the nomination, adding that Witonsky “is a role model for veterinary students and young faculty.”

Witonsky was honored for her work with Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), a neurologic disease that affects horses. Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis is caused by an infectious protozoal parasite known as Sarcocystis neurona. Opossums are the known carriers of this organism and horses are believed to contract the disease by grazing on forage contaminated with the opossum feces. The parasite then somehow migrates to the brain through unknown mechanisms.

While over 50 percent of all horses in the United States are believed to be exposed to this disease, only 0.5-1 percent actually develop clinical signs, and the reason for this selective infection remains unclear, according to Witonksy. However, the effect of the disease on horses that are afflicted can be devastating. Equine patients can suffer a range of neurologic problems including behavioral changes, ataxia or clumsiness, muscle atrophy, and death. Over the past several years, diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccinations for EPM have been developed and Witonsky is attempting to improve upon those.

Specifically, Witonsky hopes to achieve three goals with her research. The first is to discover the mechanism by which Sarcocystis neurona is able to breech the blood/brain barrier and affect the horse. The second is to learn more about the disease process so that more sensitive and more accurate diagnostic tests can be developed. Finally, Witonsky hopes to develop a more effective vaccine to help protect horses from this debilitating disease.

Witonsky’s research is a good example of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine’s goal of increasing the amount of translational research underway in the college. Witonsky works both as a clinician of the equine field service as well as a research scientist pursuing EPM and other infectious disease research. Translational research involves strong collaborations between basic and clinical scientists and seeks to rapidly develop solutions for pressing animal and human disease problems. The discoveries that are being made in Witonsky’s laboratory are easily transferable to the examining room. Veterinarians are able to take the knowledge gained from Witonsky’s research and use it to diagnose and treat horses that are afflicted with EPM.

Witonsky said she is very honored by this recognition of her work, however, she adds, she is also hopeful that her greatest work is still “yet to come.” All of this work has been made possible by a large collaboration with colleagues in a variety of areas. Current collaborators include Dr. David Lindsay, professor, parasitology, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology; Dr. Robert Gogal Jr., associate professor, immunology, Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine; Dr. Robert Duncan Jr., associate professor, pathology, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology; Dr. Yasuhiro Suzuki, associate professor, molecular immunology, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology; Dr. Virginia Buechner-Maxwell, associate professor, Clinical Services / Medicine / Equine and Production Management Medicine, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences; Dr. Frank Andrews, professor, large animal internal medicine, University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine; and Dr. Siobhan Ellison, a private practitioner specializing in pathogens.

Witonsky received her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Minnesota. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee and completed a post-doctorate jointly at Tennessee and St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Before joining the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine’s Virginia Tech campus, Witonsky was a resident in Large Animal Internal Medicine at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She is a sustaining member of Phi Beta Kappa and is a diplomate in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM).

Witonsky is a member of numerous professional organizations. These include the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Society of Microbiologists, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the Southwest Virginia Veterinary Medical Association, the Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM) Society, Phi Zeta, and the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association.