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Studying animals can help greatly with the advancement of human medicine. (Richard Hutchings / Corbis)

How Looking to Animals Can Improve Human Medicine

In a new book, UCLA cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz reminds us that humans are animals too. Now, if only other doctors could think that way

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The real challenge is to create bridges and to put this knowledge and these kinds of practices so well known and understood on the veterinary side into the hands of human practitioners.

Is there an example you can point out of a human treatment that was laying dormant in animal research?

There is this story I tell of sitting around the table at the Princeton Club in 1999. There was a veterinary oncologist named Phil Bergman. Next to him was Jedd Wolchok, at that time a rising star at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, one of the leading cancer research hospitals in the world. At one point during the dinner, Wolchok turned to Bergman and said, “Do dogs get melanoma?” That was really the right question asked to the right person at the right moment because Bergman happened to be one of the world’s experts in how malignant melanoma affects dogs.

The two of them began collaborating. Wolchok was already working on a novel therapy that would trick a patient’s immune system into attacking its own cancer. They had some early success, but they needed to know how the remedy might fare in animals with spontaneously occurring tumors. Within three months, Bergman had this trial up and going. He recruited nine dogs: a Siberian husky, a Lhasa Apso, a Bichon Frise, a couple of cocker spaniels and some other dogs. They all had various stages of melanoma, and they used this therapy, which involved injecting human DNA into dogs’ thigh muscles. It worked even better than Bergman and Wolchok expected. The dogs’ tumors shrank and their survival rates soared. Ultimately, this therapy was used in over 300 pet dogs. The translational potential, or the possibility of bringing that intervention over to the human side, is real. Bergman and Wolchok’s collaboration has now inspired work on a similar vaccine for melanoma in humans.

At this point, how much collaboration between doctors and vets are you seeing?

In the 25 years that I have been a physician, I can’t remember a single instance where we were discussing a patient and another physician on rounds brought up an animal patient with the same disorder.

If you ask physicians where the intersection between animal and human health is, most of them will probably first point to something called zoonoses. Zoonoses are diseases that travel between animals and humans. Without a doubt, zoonoses are very important to know about from the perspective of human health. Many of the emerging infections that pose pandemic threats to human populations do come from the animal reservoir—H1N1, SARS, West Nile virus, etc. But I really feel that to engage physicians—rank and file, clinical physicians, people like myself, cardiologists, gastroenterologists, gynecologists, pediatricians, people who see patients—in this discussion with veterinary medicine, we need to begin educating them about diseases that are not explicitly infectious diseases.

There is something called One Health, which has been emerging over the past ten years or so. It is an attempt to bring the fields together. It has primarily been led on the veterinary side. Veterinarians recognize the importance of animal health to human health. Unfortunately, that message has not really yet resonated loudly on the human side. I am hoping that Zoobiquity changes that.

Human medicine and veterinary medicine haven’t always been so siloed or separated, right? When did this change, and what caused it?

A hundred years ago animals played more of a part in humans’ lives. Certainly on farms that has always been the case, but even in urban areas, until the turn of the century, horses and oxen and other transportation animals played important roles. With the emergence of the combustion engine, automobiles entered cities and displaced some of the animals as transportation. Around that period, as a result of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, veterinary schools were founded in agrarian communities whereas medical schools were placed in more urban areas. That geographical separation played a significant role in the siloing of our two professions.

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