Delco to be next Harry M. Zweig Assistant Research Professor in Equine Health

In recognition of her dedication to extending the healthy lifespan of horses and improving their quality of life, Michelle Delco ’98, D.V.M. ’02, Ph.D. ’16, has been named the next Harry M. Zweig Assistant Research Professor in Equine Health. This is a three-year, endowed position for a junior faculty member at the College of Veterinary Medicine who shows great promise for advancing equine research.

“Dr. Delco is an accomplished and highly valued member of our college community,” said Dr. Susan Fubini, senior associate dean for academic affairs and professor in large animal surgery. “Her research program is on a tremendous upward trajectory, and its focus on equine joint disease and osteoarthritis aligns well with the objectives of the Zweig Memorial Fund.”

Delco is a board-certified large animal surgeon and assistant research professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences whose time spent in clinical practice treating equine athletes for sports injuries has motivated her to discover new ways to treat and prevent osteoarthritis.

“We’ve domesticated this amazing species. Horses have worked alongside humans since the beginning of civilization,” Delco said. “It’s our job to keep them sound and healthy.”

After receiving her bachelor’s and D.V.M. degrees from Cornell, Delco completed internship training at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, followed by residency training at the University of California at Davis. She then served in a faculty position at Kansas State University before working for a number of years in private practice in the Pacific Northwest.

“I did a lot of work on sport horses with complicated lameness issues,” Delco said. “I got more and more frustrated diagnosing career-ending orthopedic injuries without effective treatment options to offer clients and their horses.”

This spurred her return to Cornell in 2012, where she studied post-traumatic arthritis in the lab of Lisa Fortier, Ph.D. ’98, the James Law Professor of Surgery. Noted Dr. Robert Weiss, associate dean for research and graduate education, “With superb training as a veterinary clinician scientist, Dr. Delco is extremely well-positioned to conduct rigorous, cutting-edge biomedical research and then translate those findings for the benefit of animal health.”

“I wanted to know what we were missing,” Delco says. “Why weren’t we making progress treating this disease?” She consequently did her Ph.D. research on the function of mitochondria, the energy generating powerhouses of cells, and their links to joint injury. Now a faculty member at Cornell with a lab of her own, Delco has developed an innovative niche in the area of mitochondrial biology within the fields of osteoarthritis and regenerative medicine. In particular, she is exploring new research questions that build on the concepts of mitochondrial dysfunction as a driver of osteoarthritis and enhancement of mitochondrial function as a new therapeutic strategy. 

Delco’s goal is to prevent chronic joint pain and dysfunction in both horses and humans. “For decades, lifespan has been steadily increasing — largely thanks to scientific discoveries in human and veterinary medicine,” Delco said. She notes, however, that healthspan — the number of high-quality years lived — has not similarly increased. “We’re developing new approaches to stop joint degeneration after injury. Whereas arthritis in human athletes can be career-ending and painful, for equine athletes, it can be life-threatening.”

Delco is also keen to bring this scholarly expertise to her role as a surgeon at the Cornell Equine Hospital, where she works on the orthopedic surgery service. She’s especially interested in minimally invasive surgery techniques like arthroscopy in standing horses. In both the hospital and her research lab, Delco collaborates with a team of skilled surgical residents, students, technicians and researchers.

Michelle Delco examines a horse inside the Cornell animal hospital
The honor is in recognition of Delco's dedication to extending the healthy lifespan of horses and improving their quality of life. Photo: Carol Jennings/CVM

“Beyond her many research accomplishments, Dr. Delco also is active in teaching and mentoring, and her passion for helping to develop young scientists is an asset to all of us,” Fubini said.

“There’s such a richness that comes from a diverse group of people working together,” Delco said. “For example, my research group is a collection of talented and engaged people, all at different stages of their training, who are excited about science and progress. They inspire me. I feel lucky to work with such a great team.”

The Harry M. Zweig Memorial Fund for Equine Research honors the late Dr. Harry Zweig, a distinguished veterinarian known for his contributions to New York’s equine industry. In 1979, the New York State Legislature created the Zweig Fund to support and promote equine research at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Read more about past Harry M. Zweig Assistant Professors online.

Written by Melanie Greaver Cordova