Intercalating offers an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of what we do

Sara Hillyer in Madrid

During my preclinical years, I found that reading around subjects helped me to understand what we were being taught.

Looking for the research basis behind the clinical trials for the topics I was learning really helped to consolidate my understanding. I found I started to question the papers I was reading and was using my own research to question current clinical reasoning. Discovering the evidence basis for certain techniques gave me a lot of pleasure and it was great to be able to critically analyse it myself.

During third year, I was struggling. The volume of material we were faced with was overwhelming, and I wanted to give myself time to really explore a specific subject area in depth. When I discovered the clinical research degree, my mind was made up – I would intercalate.

I already knew that I enjoyed learning about current research, but I wanted to improve my ability to appraise research findings. I could see the benefit these skills could bring to my future career – the ability to answer a clinical question through conducting a literature review would make me a better clinician.

What was your research focus?

The vascular endothelial glycocalyx. The glycocalyx is a gel-like matrix that covers the surface of blood vessels. It acts like an extra layer, regulating vascular homeostasis and contributing to vascular permeability, vessel wall interactions and flow-mediated vasodilation.

Research on the glycocalyx is still in its early days and we’re still discovering its role; however, the potential for this research and the ways it could help animals is huge!

The first steps involve investigating which disease states are most affected by glycocalyx breakdown. Currently, methods for detecting glycocalyx shedding are still being developed. Once refined, these techniques could be used diagnostically; for example, to detect disease progression. The ultimate goal is in the field of therapeutics – if the glycocalyx could be reconstituted, we may be able to help slow the rate of progression of many diseases.

Tell us about your project

Initially, I visualised the glycocalyx for the first time in dogs and cats using an Alcian blue perfusion technique and electron microscopy. I then went on to develop methods of measuring glycocalyx components in plasma and serum samples with the aim of quantifying glycocalyx degradation in animals with different diseases.


"I already knew that I enjoyed learning about current research, but I wanted to improve my ability to appraise research findings"


The MSD Animal Health research bursary funded my use of the hyaluronan assay to detect glycocalyx breakdown in dogs with mitral valve disease and hypercoagulability, as well as in cats with chronic kidney disease and hyperthyroidism.

Why did you choose this subject?

My interest in this area was sparked by my supervisor, Natalie Finch. The more I learnt, the more apparent it became that the glycocalyx is integral in maintaining vascular homeostasis and, therefore, how important its degradation could be in propagating disease severity.

Very little research has been done in this field in companion animals and I was determined to explore the potential role of the glycocalyx in veterinary medicine.

How does your research help vets?

I had the opportunity to present my research at the British Small Animal Veterinary Association congresses in 2018 and 2019, as well as at the Southern European Veterinary Conference in Madrid in 2018. The main aim of presenting my work is to raise the profile of the glycocalyx. The more vets and scientists who research its clinical impact, the faster our knowledge base will grow. This will give us a better chance of being able to harness what it can do to improve both the quality and quantity of the lives of our animals.

What skills and knowledge have you gained?

The most valuable skill I have taken from my research is being able to do a thorough and comprehensive literature review.

During my project I had to search the literature extensively, looking for different visualisation and assay techniques to help inform my protocol.

This took time, but it means I now have excellent skills searching relevant veterinary databases. It’s satisfying exploring current research and using that to inform my clinical decision making in practice.

What was the biggest challenge?

Working out how to adapt the Alcian blue assay!

Performing an assay that has never been used to detect glycosaminoglycans was difficult. The Alcian blue molecules were binding non-specifically and, although trialling different methods of purification was technically challenging and time consuming, it was also exciting.


"Research is all about working your way through many things that don’t work to find one that does"


It’s very rewarding to be the first person to try to refine a technique, knowing that your progress could help to inform future research.

What advice would you give to other vet students?

Remember that finding no significant difference, or discovering that you can’t refine a technique for what you initially envisaged, is just as valuable as proving your initial hypothesis.

Research is all about working your way through many things that don’t work to find one that does, and disproving something is still excellent evidence to enter into the literature. Be prepared for setbacks and be proud of what you’ve achieved, even if it is not exactly what you had set out to find.

What’s next in your career?

I recently finished my final exams and I’m now a qualified vet.

I’m excited to start my first job as a small animal vet with Vale Vets in Portishead near Bristol. I’m eager to put my clinical skills in to practice and I’m happy that I’ve found such a wonderful team to ease me in to working life.

I will undoubtedly be using the skills I have developed to help me in clinical practice and I look forward to continuing my research in a clinical environment.

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