From a small farm near Liverpool, England, to a renowned researcher, Dr. Timothy Bentley thrives on better understanding the canine brain. And, as the Director of the Canine Brain Tumor Research Program at Purdue University in Indiana and one of Veterinarianedu.org’s “15 Most Influential Veterinarians,” he’s definitely one to know.
Here Dr. Bentley shares his realization that veterinarian specialty was possible and his insight into his current research that can change the course of both canine and human health. However, like many veterinarians, he came into the field thinking of vets as general practitioners.
“In my mind, vets were GP’s. They did a few cats and dogs, ducks, cows, and a little bit of everything. My idea of what a veterinarian did was very different. I didn’t realize specialization was an option,” he shares.
Dr. Bentley said a course in veterinary school was his “aha” moment: “The lightbulb went off for me when I took a course on the functioning of the nervous system. It’s usually an unpopular course because it’s hard and very detailed. I was the one person in the class who loved it. Our class instructor mentioned that spinal surgeries and MRIs were becoming routine in veterinary medicine, and I thought that was interesting. It really suits my personality to try and do one thing well rather than try to do a lot of things.”
Fast forward 16 years, and that specialization has paid off. As the Director of the Canine Brain Tumor Research Program at Purdue University, he splits his time between the office and the teaching hospital, and always gets to explore new questions around canine health.
A TYPICAL DAY
“I have two jobs. In academia, I have ‘off-clinic’ days where I spend a lot of time in my office trying to get grants and funding. I also just finished writing a chapter in a textbook. Then, we have typical procedure days and typical appointment days where I’m often overseeing students,” shares Dr. Bentley.
He also has appointment days where he’s in the hospital, seeing patients and working with the residents. In the hospital setting, every day is different.
“Sometimes there are emergencies who’ve come in overnight and are waiting for us. Sometimes it’s all spinal problems with slipped discs. Sometimes all the cases are medical, and sometimes they’re all surgical,” he adds.
“One of the difficult things about neurology is that paralyzed dogs will turn up in the middle of the day on what was planned to be an appointment day. It just comes with the territory,” Dr Bentley continues. “So we’re forever squeezing things in and staying late. Things like seizures happen when they happen, so it can be very unpredictable.”
WORKING WITH THE VETERINARY STUDENTS
“Slipped discs are our bread and butter. The most rewarding disc surgery is when the residents do the surgery, and I just watch. It’s rewarding to watch them grow,” he shares enthusiastically.
Dr. Bentley says the residents spend three years in the program training to be board-certified specialists.
“We usually have three residents, but right now, we have two residents and one intern. They’ve already done an extra year of training where they’ve done a little of everything. Then three years with us training to be a specialist. They’ve all passed their exams,” he adds.
Research is constantly evolving. Currently, Dr. Bentley is working with the University of Alabama on cancer research. In the study, the researchers have GMO’d the herpes simplex virus to attack cancer cells. As viruses go, the herpes simplex virus is pretty harmless, only causing cold sores.
Dr. Bentley says, “At Alabama, they’ve removed part of the genetic code of the virus so it only interacts with cancer cells and it’s injected into the brain.”
That work was met with success and has FDA approval, which led to the question of, “Can we use higher doses, and will that make the patient infectious?”
“Now we’re in the closing stages of that study, and none of the patients have become contagious, and none of the dogs have developed any side effects from the virus,” he shares.
Now the researchers are wondering “what’s next?”
Dr. Bentley says, “What study can we do that would make this a better therapy for humans? That’s something that’s awesome about this type of research. When we use dogs as test subjects, they and their families can benefit from these studies for human subjects.
“We’re frustrated when a new therapy comes out that’s only been tested on humans because no one has any idea if it’s safe in dogs or what the dosage is for dogs. But when it starts with dogs, we can benefit dogs and later adults and children with brain cancer,” he adds.
Another benefit is that when the researchers do work that also benefits humans, they’re eligible for money available for human research—and there’s a lot more money available for human research.
Besides the herpes virus study, Dr. Bentley is also working with a biomedical engineer at Purdue, Dr. Hugh Lee, who has created a tiny device—less than a millimeter—for hydrocephalus patients.
“Hydrocephalus is where spinal fluid builds up in the brain and causes neurological problems. The typical treatment is a shunt in the brain that drains this fluid to the abdomen to be easily handled. However, the shunt can get obstructed. This device is a tiny metal piece that connects to the shunt, and because there is no battery, it never runs out of juice. It’s similar to recharging your phone on one of those magnet rechargers. We’re still in the pre-clinical phases of this, but we’ve tested it with pigs and have a publication with the reviewers right now,” Dr Bentley shares.
THE NEED FOR CANINE BRAIN SPECIALISTS
Dr. Bentley said when he considered specializing in canine brain health, his options were few: “There were two programs in the U.K. and seven in North America. Those were my options for an English-speaking program.”
He completed his residency training at Tufts and moved to Purdue in 2009.
“Now, there are six canine neurosurgeons in Indiana. There are still too few of us. There are whole areas of the country with no neurological vets,” he says.
Dr. Bentley recommends specializing if there is a certain area of veterinary medicine that you’re drawn to.
“I think everyone eventually gets bored doing the same thing over and over. I’ve been out of veterinarian school for 16 years. I like doing more and more complicated surgeries. I enjoy being that little bit more advanced,” he concludes. +