Shila Nordone, MS, PhD is the President-Elect of Winn Feline Foundation and has served as a member of their scientific advisory board for 6 years. She is Director of Business Development for the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC), and adjunct Immunologist at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. She recently participated in the WINN Feline Foundation panel – “Supporting Cat Health Studies, and Providing a Resource for Cat Writers/Bloggers” during the 2017 Cat Writers’ Association Conference.
What influenced your decision to work in animal health?
I am an infectious disease immunologist with an animal science background. My BS and MS were in Animal Science and Nutritional Physiology, respectively. I took an immunology course as an elective during my MS and fell in love with the immune system, its complexity and flexibility, and found it fascinating that people and animals have this network of cells and organs that is so rapidly able to protect the body from infectious disease. I have always worked in the context of animal health, except for my postdoctoral training at Duke University where I worked with HIV vaccine development in the murine model. I like the human research side of my discipline, but I am an animal scientist at heart. I strongly value agriculture and food animal health – I know where the cream in my coffee comes from and how much effort it took to get it there! And I see companion animals as a critical part of our societal well being; I can’t imagine life without our companions. Our dogs and cats are part of our family, they have helped raise our children and they make our lives so much richer.
What is your proudest accomplishment so far in veterinary medicine?
Science is a team sport so you will never hear a scientist say “I” did… its always “we.” I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of very talented people – scientists, technicians, graduate students – and it’s hard to say there is one single moment in my career that is defining. I am proud of the research we did when I was a principal investigator at the NCSU College of Veterinary Medicine; we enhanced our understanding of the mechanisms of inflammation in the dog, identifying the molecule responsible for amplification of inflammation that could be a potential drug target in sepsis. We defined a second molecule as being a potential pivot point in the inflammatory cascade, and a potentially powerful drug target. When I took the leap to the non-profit sector of our profession I was humbled by the incredible science others were doing and equally frustrated that there was not enough funding to support this work. Winn Feline Foundation has funded some very important studies that have made serious gains in our understanding of emerging technologies such as stem cell therapy, and our understanding of how deadly viruses such as FIP work. But we often have to leave good science on the table because of lack of resources. I am proud to have been part of the AAFP Feline Vaccine Guidelines panel; they are a group of passionate and brilliant feline practitioners and scientists who care deeply about balancing the prevention of disease with the safety of vaccine protocols. I am also very proud of the vector-borne disease modeling team I work with now at the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC); our ability to forecast the spread of infectious disease is so powerful. Overall, I am proudest of those moments when I was part of a group that was having an impact. Science without impact is not a success.
In addition to being the Winn Feline president-elect, you are currently a Research Assistant Professor and instructor in veterinary immunology at NC State College of Veterinary Medicine. What are some topics that interest you pertaining to feline health?
I am adjunct at NCSU; I left my role as principal investigator in 2012 when I became CSO of the Canine Health Foundation. I have been with Winn Feline Foundation since 2010 as a member of their scientific advisory group. I began my role as Director of Business Development for the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) in 2015 and also do additional work for startup companies focused on vector-borne disease diagnostics. I enjoy the intersection of science and business because that is what drives new treatments and diagnostic tests to the clinic. In my current role I am most fascinated by the dynamic changes in vector-borne disease on an annual basis; you can literally watch an infectious disease march across a state over time when you map prevalence on an annual basis.
Why are those topics so interesting to you?
In the space of vector-borne disease, veterinarians and pet owners have a preconceived idea of where certain vector-borne diseases are endemic, but in reality disease range can shift dramatically on an annual basis because of climate, encroachment of wildlife, shifting patterns of urbanization, trade… CAPC has a long history of mapping canine vector-borne disease but has just started mapping feline heartworm disease, as well as the viral diseases FIV and FeLV. It is going to be interesting to watch annual changes in feline disease over time and see how disease ranges fluctuates. From there, I hope we will be able to develop a better understanding of the drivers of disease that will lead to better prevention.
How did you become involved with the Winn Feline Foundation?
I was simply invited to serve as a scientific reviewer; I think it was David Husted of Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica who recommended me to Winn. I was honestly very nervous about being part of a group that made such important decisions and asked Gregg Dean (now a department head at Colorado State CVM) if he thought I was qualified. I’ve now been a reviewer for multiple funding agencies, and I personally think Winn does it better than other public charities in animal health because of the balance of opinions in the room and the mutual respect for different opinions. We have practitioners, scientists and the cat fancy at the table discussing the relative merits of proposals, and because we have such respect for each other’s contributions to feline health we are able to fund projects where we all see mutual benefit. It is scientific review that is unbiased and balanced, which is how it should be done.
As the Winn Feline Foundation president-elect, what will be your goals for the Winn Feline Foundation during your presidency?
We are in the process of going through strategic planning, and that will determine our path moving forward. I will support Vicki Thayer in every way possible, she is an extraordinary leader, and I anticipate our efforts will be to better communicate the impact of our funded research and to grow our finances to better support feline health.
As a panelist for the 2017 CWA Conference on “Supporting Cat Health Studies, and Providing a Resource for Cat Writers/Bloggers,” what can you tell us about Winn resources for cat writers and bloggers?
The resources are there, the problem is that they are buried in the scientific literature and we need to do a better job of describing research outcomes in language that all people can understand. It’s hard for scientists to speak in language that everyone can understand because we are so tied to our jargon and fear that if we simplify statements we will lose accuracy. Scientists are honestly very poor communicators, even though we write and speak all the time! We’ve got to identify science writers and work collaboratively so that we can share impact of research. It is very time intensive, it can take hours of conversation to get an important scientific journal article (or a collection of articles) into plain English, but it is worth the effort. Its also important to understand science is incremental, it is like putting together a complex puzzle, where each research study functions as a piece of the puzzle. Over time we have clarity, but it takes tremendous effort to get there. Small breakthroughs lead to major breakthroughs when we are trying to cure and prevent disease.
What are three top tips for cat owners to better understand feline health?
1. Emotional well being matters. Enrichment and socialization are critical for feline health.
2. Wellness visits matter. Your veterinarian needs to see your cat annually, because prevention of disease and early detection of disease are the best way to keep your cat healthy. A major part of an annual wellness exam needs to include testing for parasites and a conversation about parasite prevention.
3. Good nutrition matters. Nutrition is probably the most volatile subject because people have such strong opinions, but cat owners need to work with their veterinarian to identify the optimal nutritional needs for their individual cat. Like people, there is not a one size fits all approach to nutrition, but there are general guidelines for body condition score and meeting basic nutritional requirements. From there nutritional recommendations can be made to help treat or prevent disease.
What are the most important things our community needs to know about the Winn Feline Foundation?
Winn is a foundation focused on impact and on improving the lives of cats. Its never about trendy or sexy science, its about understanding where we can truly make a difference in feline health and medicine, and then committing to investing in the long term. Stem cell therapy is a great example. Winn has funded a series of groundbreaking studies that have laid the foundation for turning a novel concept into a real therapy. FIP is another example. Winn, through the Bria fund, has been a leader in funding the fundamental work that our future treatments and therapies will rest on. And finally, genetics of the cat – Winn has made a major commitment to better defining the genome of the cat because it is essential to understand the genetic underpinning of disease. The Ricky fund is an excellent example of a mechanism we’ve used to make a serious commitment to curing feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a disease with a strong genetic component.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Winn needs to hear from cat owners and donors, I promise we will listen and we will be responsive. All too often public charities focus internally, on their board of directors, on their staff. Winn does not have that kind of board or staff; we honestly don’t have personal agendas. We look externally for guidance and input because cat owners, cat breeders, veterinarians, and of course cats, are whom we serve.