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Vets and Physicians Find Research Parallels [Vivisection Implications]

September 10, 2012 [NY Times]

Vets and Physicians Find Research Parallels

By WILLIAM GRIMES

Three times in the last two months, researchers from St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan headed across town to the Animal Medical Center to look at dogs.

Doctors at the hospital's Vascular Birthmark Institute were enticed by the chance to study anomalies of the arteries and veins that are rare in humans but common in dogs. And the traffic between human and animal hospitals flows in the other direction, too: Late last month, veterinarians from the Animal Medical Center began meeting with their counterparts at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to set up trials of a noninvasive device for removing tumors of the urinary tract with electrical impulses.

Exchanges of this sort are becoming increasingly common. Once a narrow trail traveled by a few hardy pioneers, the road connecting veterinary colleges and human medical institutions has become a busy thoroughfare over the last five years or so, with a steady flow of researchers representing a wide variety of medical disciplines on both sides.

One reason is a growing frustration with the inefficiency of using the rodent model in lab research, which often fails to translate to human subjects. So researchers are turning their attention to the naturally occurring diseases in dogs, horses, sheep and pigs, whose physiology and anatomy more closely resemble those of humans.

'The drugs cure the mice and keep failing when we try them on humans,' said Dr. John Ohlfest, an immunotherapist at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center, who began working with the university's veterinary school in 2005 to study canine brain cancers. 'The whole system is broken.'

Dr. Laurence J. N. Cooper, who develops immune-based therapies at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and recently started making canine T cells for lymphoma research at Texas A&M's veterinary school, said: 'There's got to be a better way. Canine biologies look like ours, and the treatments look like ours.'

The growing realization that vets and medical doctors may have very good reasons to talk to one another has led to a host of collaborative research projects aimed at speeding the journey from lab to human clinical trials and, in the end, producing a result that can be applied to human and animal patients alike.

These projects often emanate from partnerships like the National Cancer Center's comparative oncology program, created in 2006 to coordinate canine cancer trials among 20 oncology centers across the United States, or the Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research at North Carolina State University's veterinary college, which recently signed a partnership agreement with the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to do research on regenerating organs in humans and pets.

'In the past I might have gone over to the medical school with a specific problem and ask advice,' said Dr. Larry D. Galuppo, an equine surgeon at the University of California, Davis, who has been experimenting with the latest stem-cell therapies to repair tendon injuries in horses. 'But it wasn't programmatic the way it is now.'

It is not unusual, these days, for veterinary surgeons to call in their human-medicine counterparts for consultations or even to take part in tricky operations. Vets go on rounds at hospitals for people, and vice versa. Both sides attend each other's conferences. 'It's still grass roots, it's still early days, but it's very exciting,' Dr. Ohlfest said.

In part, the proliferation of partnerships reflects a philosophical movement known as 'one health,' or 'one medicine,' the recognition that about 60 percent of all diseases move across species and that environmental pollution, animal diseases and human diseases constitute a single interlocking problem.

This was the subject of a joint declaration by the American Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2006 aimed at encouraging information sharing and joint projects among the far-flung branches of veterinary and human medicine.

More concretely, the completion of the canine genome map, in 2005, set off an explosion in basic research. Although less celebrated than the Human Genome Project, the canine map gave researchers a blueprint with clear potential for human use, since the gene codes for canines could be matched, one for one, with their human counterparts.

Cooperation can take the form of advanced research into new forms of diagnostic imaging, or gene manipulation. Or it can be as humble as fitting a dog with a shoe.

Dr. Robert Hardie, a surgeon at the University of Wisconsin's school of veterinary medicine, turned to the orthotics lab at the university's medical school in 2005 when he could not heal a post-surgery foot wound in Sam, a 200-pound Irish wolfhound.

As many other large dogs with footpad injuries do, Sam kept putting weight on the wound, caused when a toe had to be amputated. The orthotics team took a cast of Sam's foot and made a foam-lined plastic boot with Velcro straps. Dr. Hardie later worked with the team to develop specialized braces for tendon injuries.

Often, partnerships embrace multiple institutions and, within institutions, fields as diverse as biomechanics and textiles.

Dr. Jonathan M. Levine, a veterinary neurologist at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, joined forces with the medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, to test a promising new drug that blocks a particular enzyme that inflicts secondary damage, like the aftershock to an earthquake, on injured spinal nerves.

Working with dachshunds and other dwarf canine breeds, which often suffer from spinal cord injuries because of their propensity to develop herniated discs, he recently won a grant from the Department of Defense, which is interested in the application of his research to battlefield injuries.

At the same time, one of Dr. Levine's colleagues, Dr. Jay Griffin, has collaborated with specialists at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston to develop a new technique, called diffusion tensor imaging, whose sensitivity allows them to see precisely how spinal cord cells die.

The big bet is that veterinary science and human medical science can combine to achieve efficiencies that translate across species. In some instances, this has already happened.

Dr. Hollis G. Potter, head of magnetic resonance imaging at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, has been working with Dr. Lisa A. Fortier of Cornell University's college of veterinary medicine to analyze meniscus injuries using sheep.

Quantitative M.R.I. techniques like ultrashort echo-time imaging makes it possible to see how knee tissue heals, and how much stress it can stand after surgical repair, information that has immediate application for the human knee. 'In just a couple of years, we've taken this process from sheep to humans,' Dr. Potter said.

The reverse route is even quicker. 'Traditionally there has been a 10-to-20-year lag between animal and human medicine,' said Dr. Chick Weisse of the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan, who for the last two years has been treating hard-to-reach canine tumors with a frozen-nitrogen technique he learned at Sloan-Kettering.

'That gap has narrowed,' he said. 'Now you see renal transplants, hip replacements -- things they said would never be done on animals. Things are happening so fast right now that it's almost simultaneous.'

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