Posted July 06, 2023

Attend Dr. Friedenberg's keynote for Phi Zeta Research Day on Friday, August 11, 2023.

Steven Friedenberg
Dr. Steven Friedenberg
Why did you agree to be Phi Zeta Research Day’s 2023 keynote speaker?

It’s an opportunity for me to do something new—I’ve never done something like this before, so it seemed like a good thing to try. It’s always really nice to reach out and interact with students who are interested in research, tell them a little about what I’m doing.

I think it helps people starting out to understand a little about the career paths that other people have taken to get to the point where they are. When I was a vet student, I was kind of mystified about how people get from here to there. I’m also very excited and passionate about what I do, and I like to talk.

What will a non-veterinary student gain from attending your keynote?

I hope to convey the importance of dogs, how they can be a good model for studying human diseases. Dogs get a whole host of diseases that are very similar to diseases that people get. I hope people understand a little more about dogs as a model for research and how that’s evolved over time, specifically for genetics research. I’d also like to bring people up to speed on some of the new, interesting technologies that are impacting the world of genetics.

How do these points tie into your research?

A lot of the more common diseases that we see in dogs are complex genetic diseases. We’re embarking on a path to try and understand some of these diseases because those can have a lot of importance in both the dog world and as we think about dogs as a model for human disease. Some of what my lab has done is to try to bring whole genome sequencing down to almost a clinical level—to be able to find the right patient who has the right kind of disease, where it’s genetic and they’re young, and we can figure out what’s going on—kind of like solving a mystery that before has been difficult to solve—with the resources we’ve built and the technologies that have become available to make some of these discoveries more of a reality.

Why did you decide to become a veterinarian?

I’ve always loved animals, and becoming a vet is something I always thought of doing. Being a vet is actually a second career for me. When I graduated from college, I spent some time working in the business world as a management consultant, and I found that that work wasn’t super rewarding in terms of making me feel happy with what I was doing on a day-to-day basis, so I decided to take a sabbatical from work and do all the requirements to get into vet school. I really just fell in love with it and decided that I wanted to go forward and go to vet school.

What kind of veterinary career did you want?

I originally thought I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. I had spent so much time in the business world making PowerPoint presentations that I wanted to do something very tangible. But as I made it through vet school, I started working for Rory Todhunter, who is not only an orthopedic surgeon, but a geneticist. I found that I was so much more turned on by the genetics than the orthopedic surgery, and from a clinical perspective, I really loved emergency and critical care, so I changed course.

When you started to become interested in genetics, is that when you became interested in research?

I always knew going into vet school and getting a surgery residency was going to be hard, and that’s part of why I worked for Rory—I could get a good letter to help me with the residency—but really, working in his lab is where I became interested in research.

And that’s a theme in my career. I’ve had a number of really good mentors who’ve helped support my own research career. Rory is one; I think the other big one is Kate Meurs. She’s the former associate dean of research and current full dean of NC State. She’s always been a big advocate and supporter and helped push my career along. We met when I was in vet school—I was presenting my research at the Morris Animal Foundation Summer Scholars event. Kate listened to my presentation and stayed in touch with me, and I wound up doing my PhD in her lab.

Do you have an all-time favorite research experience?

I like to be out there in the community and talk to owners and breeders and understand what their thinking is, talk about the disease, and publicize it. I like interacting with the public in that way, I find that to be really rewarding. It’s one thing to do research cloistered in your lab, but it’s another to disseminate your findings, to make sure people are on board—you’re trying to answer questions that are important to them.

This happens when clients come in and their pets have the disease that I study. A lot of the work I do is breed-specific, so I’ll go to a lot of dog shows, not only to give a talk and educate owners about the disease, but often to collect blood samples or cheek swabs that can be helpful for the research enterprise.

It’s fun, it’s a little bit of a break from sitting at your desk and writing a grant all day.

Career-wise, what’s on the horizon for you?

I really like research—I like where I’m at right now. I’ve been here about six-and-a-half years, I got tenure about a year ago. I love doing research, I like being able to train grad students. I love being on the clinic floor as well, so I have 10 or 12 weeks a year working on clinics. I like seeing patients and working with students, particularly interns and residents, and being involved in their training. I love being able to push my research forward and work together with other great collaborators here at the University of Minnesota. I like being able to teach. I do a little lecturing to the vet school and some teaching in the grad program.

So, it’s hard to say—I don’t have any particular aspirations to do anything administrative, but who knows what the future may hold. I also feel pretty committed to the diseases I study, which are really hard diseases to tackle. That’s where I’m focused—trying to make headway.

What makes Addison’s disease and immune-mediated hemolytic anemia [IMHA] so interesting to you?

As a criticalist and an emergency doctor, there are some diseases you see that clearly have a genetic predisposition that are really hard to tackle, and also interesting and challenging to treat from a clinical perspective.

Addison’s disease is one of the first things that fit the bill for me to want to work on. It’s a disease that I see in the emergency room and dogs can get really sick. The disease is prevalent in poodles and Portuguese water dogs. So, it seemed like a good fit for my clinical interests, as well as my research interests, wanting to work on complex diseases.

The same is true of IMHA, it’s also an autoimmune disease—obviously, very different—but causes similar morbidity, it’s common in certain breeds, and it kills a lot of dogs.

Both of those diseases have applicability to human medicine, particularly because they’re significantly more common within particular dog breeds than they are in humans, so it makes it so that studying it in dogs, you might be able to find insights for humans with the same problems.

Is your research geared more toward understanding these diseases or more focused on addressing them clinically?

I think for both diseases, the goal is two-fold. One is to prevent the disease from happening. We’re working to identify animals that are at risk. But it’s complicated—these diseases are never going to be entirely predictable based upon genetics. It might be more like, “You have six of seven mutations, which puts you at an 80 percent chance of developing the disease.” Because of that, I think all these diseases are ones that we’ll never be able to breed away from completely.

Understanding those dogs that are at higher—or lower—risk of developing the disease is the most important thing when you think about the genetics. But I recently started to branch out beyond genetics. When I started here at the University of Minnesota, I got what’s called a K Award, which is a training grant from NIH. The whole purpose of it was to take my interest in autoimmune diseases and genetics to try and expand my knowledge base and become a little bit of an immunologist.

It’s really in the immunology where you get to the treatment aspect. We can use the genetics to figure out who is at high risk of developing a disease, but then we can use the immunology to maybe prevent it from happening if a dog is high risk for it. There are ways to train the immune system to not react abnormally.

That’s the ultimate goal—using genetics to try to understand who is at risk and decrease incidence of the disease, and then use immunology to provide better therapeutics to patients who might be at high risk.

How does mentorship play into your lab environment?

Every grad student is someone to mentor, someone who starts out being interested in research, but not necessarily knowing how to drive a project forward independently or write a paper from start to finish or put together a grant. Those are hard roads to go down, and even today, I am by no means perfect at any of those things. But I’ve learned some tips and tricks along the way, and it’s always nice to be able to teach someone else those skills.

The same thing goes clinically. It’s nice to train an intern or fourth-year vet student—this is how you safely do a chest tap, for example, and how you can really make the animal better with a simple procedure that might seem scary, but it’s not that hard once you get used to it.

What’s most rewarding about mentoring?

Seeing the success in the end that is driven by the person you’re mentoring. When you see them knock that paper out or get that grant or fellowship or be recognized for all the hard work that they’re doing, I find that particularly rewarding.

And the most challenging?

Everyone has different communication and learning styles—but that also helps make it fun. When you’re training someone else, you have to realize that people think about things or approach things a little differently. While one approach might be successful for me, that approach might never be successful for someone else. You have to learn that there’s a bit of a push and pull when you’re mentoring someone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Addison’s Disease and IMHA in People

Addison’s disease is a disorder that lowers adrenal activity to dangerous levels. Immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, or IMHA, in dogs is called autoimmune hemolytic anemia, or AIHA, in humans. IMHA and AIHA cause immune cells to attack the body’s own red blood cells, which causes red blood cell count to be too low. This is often a life-threatening emergency.