Vicki Meyers-Wallen has dedicated more than 30 years of her life to research, to improve the health and well-being of dogs. Her investigations into canine genetic disorders have led to multiple discoveries of genes involved in sex organ development in dogs, but it will also yield a final culminating project: a Canine Embryonic Atlas that will serve as an online resource for scientists investigating the genetic underpinnings of developmental disorders.
Meyers-Wallen began her career at the University of Pennsylvania where she received her degree in Veterinary Medicine in 1976 and her doctorate in Comparative Medical Sciences in 1986. She established her research program there as an assistant professor, but joined Cornell University in 1989. Ultimately, she decided to move up the hill to the Baker Institute in 1991, based on its reputation for supporting research that benefited the health of animals.
“People are here because they’re not just interested in doing science, they’re interested in doing science that helps animals,” says Meyers-Wallen. “To me, that is very important.”
One disorder of sexual development (DSD) she focused on was Persistent Mullerian Duct Syndrome (PMDS), which causes otherwise healthy male dogs to develop a uterus and oviducts. Her research group discovered a single causative mutation. Subsequently, they developed a genetic test for PMDS that is now available through commercial labs.
Another disorder of interest is XX DSD, in which dogs with female chromosomes develop one or two testes. While the condition runs in families, its inheritance is complex and the genetic basis has been difficult to pin down. Through multiple genetic and genomic studies, Meyers-Wallen has narrowed in on the chromosomal region that contributes to the disorder.
Through her investigations into DSDs and the embryonic development of the sex organs, Meyers-Wallen collected tissue that she is repurposing now to create an online Canine Embryonic Atlas. She is building a catalogue of photos of organs at different developmental stages, which will include data on which genes turn on and off in selected tissues at each stage. The information will be free and publicly available on the Baker Institute’s website. The Atlas will serve as a resource for teachers and researchers, to help others rapidly identify genes involved in developmental disorders.
“I hope people will use the Atlas and add to it as they do additional studies,” says Meyers-Wallen. “It will facilitate further research in dogs that ultimately will benefit dogs.”