Sept. 22, 2021

Vet med prof recognized for contributions to animal and human health research

John Gilleard one of only a handful of veterinarians amongst 74 new Fellows of Canadian Academy of Health Sciences
John Gilleard
John Gilleard says it’s gratifying to have an increasing number of veterinarians acknowledged by the CAHS and more people appreciating the connection Riley Brandt

If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the world’s attention, it’s that human and animal health are inextricably linked. 

So, there’s no more fitting a time for Dr. John Gilleard, DVM, PhD, a renowned veterinary parasitologist, to be elected to the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences (CAHS) for his for research into animal and human parasitic diseases.

The Canadian Academy of Health Sciences brings together Canada’s top-ranked health and biomedical scientists and scholars to work collaboratively on urgent health concerns. Gilleard’s election as a Fellow of the CAHS reflects the increasing recognition of the importance of veterinary medicine in the health sciences.

“I think the veterinary profession is best placed to help in solving some of the big, global issues like antibiotic resistance, food production, and climate change,” says Dr. Renate Weller, dean of the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM). “John’s election to the CAHS is a testament to this. And a very well-deserved honour.”

Drugs used to treat human parasitic diseases originally developed for livestock

“For many years my research program has focused on parasitic worms of livestock which have huge impacts on animal welfare and agricultural production globally,” says Gilleard, a professor of parasitology at UCVM.

“More recently, we have levered this work to look at the control of soil-transmitted helminths (parasitic roundworms) in people. These are diseases of poverty that affect more than a billion people worldwide, predominantly  in communities which have  poor access to sanitation and public health. The socio-economic impacts are huge, with children  being disproportionately affected.”

Mass drug administration programs have increased greatly as part of efforts to reduce the disease burden in developing countries. But with only one class of drug currently used to control these parasites — drugs originally developed in the livestock industry where gastrointestinal worms are endemic —the threat of emerging drug resistance increases.

Advising World Health Organization and Gates Foundation

Gilleard acts as an expert adviser to international agencies including the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, using his expertise in parasites in sheep and cattle to study soil-transmitted worms in people.

“Because of research on livestock, we know which mutations in the genome are likely to be responsible for resistance to the major drug class used to control these parasites,” says Gilleard. “One approach we are adopting to screen for drug resistance is to look for those specific mutations in the human parasite genomes in these communities.”

It takes a village (of parasitology researchers) to tackle global problems

Along with his research work, Gilleard is involved in the Host Parasite Interactions Research Training Network at UCalgary. Its mission is to use parasitology as a platform to prepare the next generation of scientific leaders to tackle issues of relevance to human, animal, environmental, and economic health.

“Academic research is a team effort. It’s a combination of training and producing research results,” says Gilleard. “Ultimately awards like this reflect the whole team and my graduate students and postdocs are a central part of that.”

Gilleard says it’s humbling to look at the people who are Fellows of the CAHS and be considered to have something to contribute to the group.

“It’s gratifying to have an increasing number of veterinary researchers acknowledged. Certainly, we see in the middle of this pandemic, more and more people appreciating the connection between animal health and human health.”

John Gilleard is a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) and the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the University of Calgary.