Case Study – Dr Mark Westman

Mark Westman

Dr Mark Westman  BVSc (Hons) PhD MANZCVS (Animal Welfare) GradCertEdStud (Higher Ed)

Dr Mark Westman is a Professional Officer (Veterinary) for the microbiology and parasitology sections at Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute, the NSW Department of Primary Industries and a Honorary Research Affiliate at the University of Sydney.

How long have you been working in veterinary research?

I completed a PhD at the University of Sydney over four years, spent almost a year completing postdoctoral research at the Centre for Virus Research, University of Glasgow, Scotland, and for the past four years have tried to keep an active small animal research profile as my academic hobby on the weekends.

I would like to be able to encourage others that they can be actively involved in research projects, even if not formally in paid research positions. Most of my research would not have been possible without the (unpaid) contributions of other veterinarians working in clinical practice, contributing essential samples and expertise that the project was lacking. Any veterinarian wanting to be involved in research just needs to start by connecting with a researcher or research group of interest to them. For example, one veterinarian whom I have collaborated with reached out to me after a talk at a conference and we started a conversation that led to her collecting samples for a field efficacy study I was running (Sally Coggins, who has since started her own PhD in feline infectious diseases).

Why did you choose this work?

I love research and I try to perform research that is ‘real world’ and has direct clinical applications. I still see myself as a clinician first, research scientist second, and so always try to bring my clinical brain to any research I am involved in. I love working with clinicians and doing field research that challenges the way I think about things or changes how I practice. For example, when I first graduated in 2003 I paid little attention to vaccinating against FeLV. Now I am a passionate advocate that most kittens and young adult cats can benefit from FeLV vaccination.

What is your area of study and what do you hope to achieve?

My main area of interest is feline retroviruses, in particular the diagnosis of feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) infections, and vaccination against FIV and FeLV. However I am interested in all small animal infectious diseases, in particular those more common in animal shelters, and animal welfare projects. I am supervisor for one PhD student (Bronwyn Orr) who is doing some fascinating research into the health and welfare of pig-hunting dogs in Queensland. Through my work with the DPI, I also have a developing interest in bovine venereal diseases (campylobacteriosis AKA ‘vibriosis’, and trichomonosis).

What is your greatest research achievement with funding from ACAHF to date?

I am very grateful that to date I have been awarded seven ACAHF grants for various research projects (and Bronwyn has been awarded a further two ACAHF grants for her PhD project). One of my greatest achievements was partially funded by my first ever ACAHF grant in 2015, when I (along with my supervisors Richard Malik, Jacqui Norris and Paul Sheehy) discovered that some FIV point-of-care test (PoC) kits could differentiate FIV-vaccinated and FIV-infected cats. This completely changed the landscape for FIV diagnostics, since until that time it had been a long held dogma that FIV PoC kits could not be used in any cat with a possible history of FIV vaccination. This finding enabled clinicians to be able to quickly and affordably use certain FIV PoC kits to diagnose FIV infection, irrespective of FIV vaccination history, contributed to the upgrading of FIV vaccination by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) from ‘Not Recommended’ to ‘Non-Core’ in 2015, and led to my involvement with the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP)/American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) feline vaccination guidelines update in 2020.

What is the biggest research challenge you have met with or continue to face?

Time and money. I can do what I do at the moment (i.e. pursue research as a hobby) because I don’t have kids and I have a very understanding partner. This may not always be the case, and I completely understand why this is a limitation for many others (e.g. veterinarians in practice) who would like to be involved in research but don’t have the spare hours in the day! Funding for any research is challenging, in particular research into feline retroviral infections and other infectious diseases. This is why the grants I have received from the ACAHF over the years have been invaluable – there is no way I would have been able to complete most of my research projects without this support.

What does the work of the ACAHF mean to you?

Quite simply the ACAHF is one of few bodies actively supporting quality Australian research. It’s the lifeline for many research projects and many early career researchers. Personally, I am so grateful to the ACAHF for making my research goals a reality, both from financial support for specific projects as well as the moral support and encouragement that comes with a successful ACAHF grant application.

Papers published as a direct result of ACAHF support

Westman M., Yang D., Green J., Norris J., Malik R., Parr, Y.A., McDonald, M., Hosie, M.J., VandeWoude S., & Miller C. (2021). Antibody Responses in Cats Following Primary and Annual Vaccination against Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) with an Inactivated Whole-Virus Vaccine (Fel-O-Vax® FIV). Viruses, 13(3): 470.

Westman, M., Norris, J., Malik, R., Hofmann-Lehmann, R., Parr, Y. A., Armstrong, E., ... & Hosie, M.J. (2021). Anti-SU Antibody Responses in Client-Owned Cats Following Vaccination against Feline Leukaemia Virus with Two Inactivated Whole-Virus Vaccines (Fel-O-Vax® Lv-K and Fel-O-Vax® 5). Viruses, 13(2): 240. 

Orr, B., Ma, G., Koh, W.L., Malik, R., Norris, J.M., Westman, M.E., Wigney, D., Brown, G., Ward, M.P., Šlapeta, J. (2020). Pig-hunting dogs are an at-risk population for canine heartworm (Dirofilaria immitis) infection in eastern Australia. Parasites & Vectors, 13(1): 69. 

Westman, M., Norris, J., Malik, R., Hofmann-Lehmann, R., Harvey, A., McLuckie, A., Perkins, M., Schofield, D., Marcus, A., McDonald, M., Ward, M., Hall, E., Sheehy, P., Hosie, M. (2019). The diagnosis of feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) infection in owned and group-housed rescue cats in Australia. Viruses, 11(6): 503.

Westman, M., Malik, R., Norris, J. (2019). Diagnosing feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) infection: An update for clinicians. Australian Veterinary Journal, 97(3): 47-55.

Westman, M.E., Malik, R., Hall, E., Sheehy, P.A., Norris, J.M. (2017). Comparison of three feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) point-of-care antigen test kits using blood and saliva. Journal of Comparative Immunology, Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, 50: 88-96.

Westman, M.E., Malik, R., Hall, E., Harris, M., Hosie, M.J., Norris, J.M. (2017). Duration of antibody response following vaccination against feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 19(10): 1055–1064.

Westman, M.E., Malik, R., Hall, E., Harris, M., Norris, J.M. (2016). The protective rate of the feline immunodeficiency virus vaccine: an Australian field study. Vaccine, 34: 4752-4758.

Westman, M.E., Malik, R., Hall, E., Norris, J.M. (2016). Diagnosing feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection in FIV-vaccinated and FIV-unvaccinated cats using saliva. Journal of Comparative Immunology, Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, 46: 66-72.

Westman, M.E., Malik, R., Hall, E., Sheehy, P.A., Norris, J.M. (2015). Determining the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) status of FIV-vaccinated cats using point-of-care antibody kits. Journal of Comparative Immunology, Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, 42: 43-52.