As a veterinarian, Dr. Holly Sparks has a passion for healing animals of all kinds. But her true passion is working with equestrians. “Horses are truly incredible animals that play many different roles in our society. Ever since I was little, keeping them healthy and happy has always been a big concern of mine.”
However, throughout her career in clinical practice, Sparks occasionally encountered challenging cases, particularly in the healing of skin wounds and musculoskeletal injuries. “I realized there was still a lot to learn about how best to treat and prevent these injuries, and that kind of spurred me on to pursue a PhD,” says Sparks, DVM, PhD, assistant professor, large animal surgery at the University of Calgary School of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM).
Sparks first got a taste of research when she was accepted into an equine orthopedic research program at Cornell University shortly after graduating from Michigan State University veterinary college. She then completed residency training at the University of Saskatchewan and became a resident of large animal surgery. But it was her intense desire to find better ways to help horses heal from injuries that motivated Sparks to return to science.
She received her PhD in Regenerative Medicine from UCalgary with Dr. Jeff Biernaskie, PhD, a professor of stem cell biology at UCVM, and the Chair in Skin Regeneration and Wound Healing at the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society. Her eagerness to delve into clinical mysteries is now recognized with an NSERC Tier 2 Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Equine Regenerative Medicine.
Sparks is one of two UCalgary scholars to be awarded a CRC by the federal government this week. dr Marc Strous, PhD, Professor in the Faculty of Science, was also recognized. Three scholars from the Faculty of Philosophy, Dr. Ken Waters, PhD; dr Amanda Melin, PhD; and dr Marit Rosol, PhD, have renewed their CRCs for another term.
“As veterinarians, we are trained to care for a wide variety of animal species and we really appreciate how much we can learn from the similarities and differences between species. During my doctorate I was able to co-mentor the doctor Dr. Vince Gabriel went a step further, which allowed me to appreciate the many overlapping clinical challenges in human and veterinary medicine,” says Sparks.
“We can learn a lot about these common problems if we work together. I definitely want to keep that collaboration and camaraderie in my new program.”
New research program could be a game changer in Canadian regenerative medicine
“Through her veterinary practice, Holly began to appreciate the relative lack of objective evidence to support the efficacy of new cell-based therapeutics for musculoskeletal disorders,” said Biernaskie, who is proud of her CRC.
“Her mission is not only to develop new regenerative therapies, but also to improve the efficacy and usefulness of therapies currently available in clinical practice. Her previous experience of conducting clinical animal experiments in large animals is also an important asset and will be invaluable to the new Center for Cell Therapy Translation here at UCalgary.”
Sparks uses what she learned about wound healing in the Biernaskie lab and expands her research program to focus on equine regenerative medicine and equine musculoskeletal injuries.
“My goal for this program is to better understand what happens at the cellular and molecular level in injured tissues and why they heal with scar healing as opposed to regenerating functional tissue,” says Sparks, who is also a fellow of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Bone Joint Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.
Scarring after injury is associated with a variety of issues that can be debilitating for both equine and human patients. “The goal of regenerative medicine is to reduce this scarring and restore normal tissue function after injury,” she says.
The research could lead to new therapies for horses and humans
One of the new projects Sparks is involved in is tendon injuries in equestrian athletes. “Tendon injuries present a significant clinical challenge, primarily because tendons are designed to function near their biomechanical limits during exercise. If fibrosis develops here, it becomes weakened and vulnerable to chronic pain and re-injury. We want to understand why this scar tissue develops and how to prevent it from forming.”
“As a large animal veterinarian uniquely equipped with expertise in molecular and stem cell biology, Holly will be able to conduct translational research that is simply unattainable for most other labs around the world,” says Biernaskie. “I strongly believe that their future research program will transform Canadian regenerative medicine.”
“Unfortunately, tendinopathy is common in all species, but we still have a lot to understand about why these injuries occur and how we can both prevent and treat them. We hope that as our regenerative medicine research program grows, we can develop new techniques for human and equine patients to get them moving again,” says Sparks.
UCalgary’s collaborative culture supports science and discovery
Sparks credits UCalgary’s cross-faculty, multidisciplinary, collaborative culture for expanding her learning and research opportunities. “The diversity of expertise at UCalgary truly makes for a unique educational and research environment. I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to form some exciting collaborations with truly talented physicians, veterinarians, cell biologists and engineers to work toward a common goal of helping patients heal,” says Sparks.
During her PhD, Sparks became acquainted with a wealth of innovative scientific approaches. “I want to continue down this path and apply these tools to study acute and chronic diseases in other connective tissues. This CRC position allows me to combine my skills as a clinical scientist to bridge the gap between clinical practice and research to ultimately help more patients, which is something I really care about.”