Clinical Connections  –  Autumn 2023

Simon Priestnall, Professor of Veterinary Anatomic Pathology, has succeeded Ken Smith (who has become head of the Graduate School) as Head of the Department of Pathobiology and Population Sciences (PPS). We spoke to Simon about his new role and developments in diagnostic pathology at the RVC.

You were a vet student at Bristol, which included an intercalated BSc in veterinary pathology at the RVC. You then studied at Cornell before returning here for a PhD and residency. What drew you back to the RVC?

The offer of a PhD to study a completely new respiratory virus in dogs (discovered at the RVC in 2002) was too good to turn down. Having spent my intercalated year at the RVC, I knew the facilities and people would provide the perfect environment to support my scientific curiosity. The virus, as it happens, was a respiratory coronavirus, which at the time was of limited interest within the veterinary community, but in recent years has become much more topical! Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!

What have been most memorable points of your career so far?

Two things come to mind. The first was passing my specialist board exams in anatomic pathology. This was exhausting process involving travelling (with microscope) to Iowa State University where the exam was administered over three days. For me it involved two visits to the Mid-West (fortunately the second time without microscope!) as I missed by 2% on one of the papers. I vividly remember the second time, waiting patiently for the result, alone in an airport hotel on my return to the UK. I opened the email with enormous trepidation, but this was soon replaced by copious tears of joy!

The second is being awarded the 2020 Achievement Award by the Royal College of Pathologists for Contribution to Education. This recognised my teaching and mentorship in veterinary pathology at both undergraduate and especially postgraduate level, through our highly successful anatomic pathology residency training program and work with a veterinary pathology education foundation.

Simon Priestnall, at the RVC's Boltons Park Farm

You’ve taken on a huge job – what are some of the key things on your horizon over the coming months?

One of the biggest things I would like to try to support is building and developing collaborations between researchers, educators and diagnosticians within the Department. We have a huge wealth and breath of talent, from epidemiology, animal welfare science, immunology, vaccinology, agribusiness, farm animal health and management, diagnostic and research pathology, parasitology, bacteriology and virology. Although we have some great and fruitful collaborations, these can be developed further – for example taking diagnostic tests developed in the Department through to commercial application.

Aside from the more strategic things, getting to understand our farm (Bolton’s Park Farm), which is home to a large flock of sheep, dairy cattle, laying hens, goats and alpacas, is keeping me on my toes. Seeing the dedication of the people who work there is incredible – blending a commercial enterprise with an educational resource is no easy task.

What developments in diagnostic pathology at the RVC might vets in the wider community like to hear about?

Digital pathology has been accelerated by the pandemic and has enabled many more opportunities within our team. Digitised (scanned) slides have not only enabled the ability to work off site whilst on diagnostic duty but also the sharing of cases amongst the team and with other pathologists or clinicians across the campus – or even around the world – for rapid second opinions/consultations.

Diagnostic immunohistochemistry is a service we provide with an automated stainer, and we support not only our own in-house cases but also provide a service for other commercial laboratories through our large array of markers for oncological cases.

Can you still undertake research and clinical work in your new role?

This is a challenge, but I am continuing with clinical work on the surgical biopsy service – I particularly enjoy gastrointestinal cases and am part of an ACVIM consensus statement project on the topic. In terms of research collaborations, this is principally as part of a small group of RVC pathologists providing specialist experimental histopathology consultancy to the Francis Crick Institute and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), part of the Dept of Health.

The RVC has a great track record with pathology residents’ board certification. What advice would you give to any vets who are interested in making a shift into pathology?

Go for it! I have never looked back once – it is an exciting career with so many possibilities and rewarding opportunities, oh and no on call!

Top of page