MRI Gives New Prof X-ray Vision

Fiona James looks for disease clues inside the body

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Prof. Fiona James

New clinical studies professor Fiona James loves the way MRI technology allows her to “look inside the most secret parts of the body.” There’s nothing X-rated about that comment: she’s talking about being able to create images of the brain and nervous system of animals to determine what diseases are causing their symptoms and how these diseases are progressing.

Those images, and the questions they answer, may also provide information that helps humans suffering from similar illnesses.

For example, one disease James studies is degenerative myelopathy, which affects several dog breeds, including Pembroke Welsh corgis, boxers and German shepherds. Research has shown that this disease is caused by a mutation in the same gene that has been shown to cause amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in humans. “This commonality makes the dog a natural model for the human disease,” says James. The disease – whether in a dog or a human – causes paralysis which gradually spreads throughout the body, eventually causing death.

“What we don’t have is a reliable diagnosis,” James explains. “Right now, we can only give a definite diagnosis by looking at a post-mortem section of the spinal cord. We can test for the mutated gene, but having the gene doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have the disease, and many other things can cause the symptoms seen in the beginning stages of the disease. So you have to rule out a lot of things, and there’s quite a bit of initial uncertainty.”

James was born in Malaysia and traveled extensively during her childhood because her father was a Canadian diplomat. She’s lived in Indonesia, Germany, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, Canada. “I did high school in New Zealand, but all my post-secondary education in Canada,” she says. During her undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, she became interested in veterinary science and neurology. She completed her master’s in neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario, then came to the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) to earn her DVM. “I did a private practice internship in Detroit, completed a residency at OVC, then went into private specialty practice in Mississauga,” says James. “But my ideal career path has always included both clinical work and research, so I was excited when this position came up.”

During her residency, James worked with Prof. Roberto Poma, who passed away last fall. James speaks of Poma with great respect and admiration, and plans to continue his research on epilepsy in dogs. “About five percent of dogs are epileptic,” explains James, “but some breeds are over-represented. The Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers, the golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and border collies all have more cases than you’d expect. This suggests that there may be a genetic cause for some of these cases of epilepsy. Dr. Poma was working with several breed associations and international researchers to try to identify these genes.”

James has already connected with one of Poma’s former collaborators, a geneticist from the University of Helsinki, and is in the process of setting up funding arrangements for this and for her other research projects.

A third area of work involves studying encephalitis in dogs. Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain, which, in dogs, is usually caused by an auto-immune response, rather than an infection. “When we diagnose this, people usually want to know how long the dog will live, will the dog respond to treatment, things like that,” says James. “We don’t have answers for them. But one solution would be to take small samples of the affected parts of the dog’s brain – a biopsy – so that we can group dogs according to the type of inflammation in the brain. Then we can monitor them through treatment and get the data we need to make predictions for dogs in the future.” Much of the equipment needed for these brain biopsies is already available at OVC, and this type of research could paint a clearer picture of the various types of brain inflammation.

Besides her research, James provides clinical services as a neurologist for the small animal clinic, the large animal clinic and the clinic for exotic animals.

At home, she describes herself as “quite domestic.” She does needlework arts and loves to cook, while being very conscious of buying local. She also loves to travel and adds that she has plenty of excuses, since her parents now spend half of each year in Malaysia and her two sisters both live in the UK (she also has a brother in Toronto). James lives in Cambridge, Ont., with her spouse, two cats and two dogs. “One of our dogs is a pug-beagle cross, and I often say I’m afraid to scan his brain for fear I’d find nothing there at all,” she says. She loves him anyway.