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In Vivo

Animal Stewardship

Columbia's Vets: Vital  To Research Mission

Veterinarian Christina Winnicker
Veterinarian Christina Winnicker

As a veterinarian in Columbia's Institute for Comparative Medicine (ICM), the unit at CUMC that provides the veterinary care and husbandry for all research animals, Christina Winnicker, D.V.M., chief of comparative clinical services, knows that she occupies an unusual position. Although she has been trained to care for animals, her role here doesn't involve nursing back to health a pet snake with pneumonia or a goat with intestinal distress, as she did in private practice. Instead, Dr. Winnicker is one of six vets charged with maintaining the health of thousands of animals – 99 percent of which are rodents – used in research here. It is a role she sometimes finds herself defending.

"A lot of the public has misperceptions about what goes on in animal research and would probably be surprised to find veterinarians have such as integral role in research," she says. "But this is the right place for vets to be. We are the animals' advocates and we're here to make sure they are healthy and treated properly."

Dr. Winnicker left private practice in Manhattan and entered CUMC's veterinary residency program in 2002, shortly before a tense period when Columbia's vets and research scientists came under attack from animal rights groups. The outsider's perspective she and the other residents brought to the job proved invaluable to the reorganization of Columbia's ICM under Thomas Martin, D.V.M.

"The current clinical practice here at Columbia is excellent and equal or even superior to what I saw in private practice," Dr. Winnicker says. "But some aspects of the previous program needed changing. Take recordkeeping, for example – from a government inspector's perspective, if a particular procedure isn't written down on the appropriate form, it isn't considered done. We have modernized processes and now everything is recorded in a professional and acceptable fashion."

Dr. Winnicker continues to keep the ICM on the cutting edge of clinical veterinary care. She works with researchers to introduce new beneficial techniques such as transdermal drug delivery patches for analgesia.

"It's a challenge to balance the interests of the animal with the interests of the researcher," Dr. Winnicker says. "We need animals to help us discover cures for diseases and relieve human and animal suffering. While I can't completely eliminate that need, I can make a difference to the ones in our labs. They are giving everything to help us and deserve the best possible care we can provide."

—Susan Conova