The intersection of human and animal medicine…do our pets hold the answers to our health?

Like many of you, my dogs are an integral part of my life and have been since I’m 3 years old.  I’ve always viewed the human/animal bond as, not only remarkable, but downright moving.

When I was young and worked in Manhattan, I can remember a particularly profound experience I had on the Long Island Railroad. I was sitting on the train when a man got on with his guide dog.

They sat across from me.  I watched, transfixed, how they communicated…how they performed as a team.  Their language was subtle, but they understood each other.

That dog gave this man independence.  The dog was intent on his work and appeared proud.  He seemed to gain such immense satisfaction from his role guiding his handler through life.

As they exited the train, I got emotional. Tears welled in my eyes. Of course, my husband and children would tell you it doesn’t take much for that to happen.

But witnessing this interaction affirmed what I know to be true.  We need dogs in our world. We need animals in our world.  They play an important role in our lives, even if we’re not dependent on a service dog.

And just last week, the significance of the human/canine relationship was validated again.   In my mailbox was a copy of TGen Today, a glossy publication of the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen).

TGen is unlocking the mystery…

TGen is a non-profit biomedical research institute. Their work focuses on the role of genetics in diagnosing and treating diseases, not only in humans but in dogs too.

In their mission to help people and pets, TGen launched the Dog and Human Precision Medicine Initiative in 2009.

What is it about a Golden Retriever’s DNA that makes them more likely to get osteosarcoma than Poodles, or Doberman Pinschers more likely to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder than Labrador Retrievers?

Scientists at TGen know that the answers to these questions will help in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of these and other diseases in people.

Cancer is one area that holds great promise.  So much so that there’s a field of study called “comparative oncology”—the study of cancer in both humans and pets.

A lot more time and money is invested in the study of cancer in humans than in animals.  That means a lower standard of care for our beloved pets.  There’s a need for more research to help our dogs.

But even beyond the importance of helping our dogs, how this research can help humans is mind-boggling.

Take melanoma, for instance.  In humans, almost half of all cases are related to a mutation in a specific gene, the BRAF gene.  There are promising treatments for people who have this form of melanoma.

But for the other 50%, there are no treatments. And the most common melanoma in dogs is that kind.  The one that lacks the BRAF mutation.  TGen is studying these tumors to find treatments for both humans and dogs with this type of melanoma.

Here’s another one… lung cancer.  Only some human lung cancers are smoking related. How about all those nonsmokers who get it?  Many dogs get lung cancer too.  And I don’t know too many dogs that smoke.  TGen is looking at canine lung cancer for the answers to lung cancer in humans that don’t smoke.

The benefits of using dogs…

According to TGen, there are 3 main reasons studying dog DNA helps inform human treatment:

1)   Dogs and people have about the same numbers and types of genes, so health conditions in dogs and humans resemble each other.

2)   Dogs age faster than humans (every 1 dog year is 7 for a human) so canine clinical trials can be completed faster than in humans.  This allows for a faster and more cost-effective path to treatment.

3)   Purebred dogs have greater genetic uniformity so locating disease-causing genes is easier than in humans.

A human study of a particular illness may need thousands of participant samples.  But a parallel study of dogs might need less than 100 animals because of the uniformity of each breed and their genetics.

As I’m writing, I’m feeling a groundswell of anxiety brewing amongst you over the thought of dogs being used for research. But there’s no reason for concern here.

The research TGen is doing is noninvasive and no dogs are being kept at their facilities for study.

Dog owners can volunteer to take part in the research.  TGen will use saliva, blood and tumor samples from your dog.  It’s simple for you to get a saliva sample.  And your vet can get the blood and tumor samples.

If you’re wondering what TGen is researching now and whether your dog might be a good study participant, you can visit their website for more information.

They’re researching several diseases including valley fever (common in the Southwest), a few cancers, OCD, and epilepsy.

Putting it all together…

TGen scientists are studying the genes of healthy dogs and dogs suffering from a particular disease.  They look for mutations in the genetic makeup of the diseased dog and compare it to the healthy dog to find the offending gene.

Dr. Matt Huentelman, Professor of Neurogenomics at TGen, hopes breeders will use the results to eliminate inherited diseases in their bloodlines.

This research can also result in preventative treatments according to Dr. Huentelman.  “If your dog is at a high risk for a disease that usually doesn’t present until age 5, we’d like to start giving him medicine at age 3 to see if we can prevent it.  If this disease has a correlate in humans, and the same medicine has been used but had minimal effect, then we could ask about starting to use it earlier in humans. It works because dogs have an accelerated life span.”

The science is not only fascinating, it’s inspiring… man’s best friend is so much more than that.  He may be a lifesaver!

And there’s even more…

If this topic interests you the way it interests me, you may find Dr. Barbara Natterson Horowitz’s work thought-provoking. She’s a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Cardiology at UCLA.

She’s developed programs to bring together the fields of veterinary medicine and human medicine.

Dr. Horowitz is a cardiovascular consultant to the Los Angeles Zoo, and she’s on their Medical Advisory Board.

Years ago, the zoo called her in to consult on the health of an elderly female chimp with a facial droop.  They thought she had a stroke and wanted Dr. Horowitz to evaluate her.

This led to an ongoing relationship with the zoo and Dr. Horowitz’s enthusiasm for cross-species work.  She realized that animals of different species have many of the same disorders as humans.

Horses suffer from post-partum depression. Self-injury is often found in birds that pluck their feathers and stallions that bite their flanks until they bleed.

Shouldn’t ob/gyns and pediatricians get with veterinarians to see how they’re handling these difficult to treat conditions in their animal patients?

Dr. Horowitz has done just that.  She’s developed programs at UCLA to bring physicians and veterinarians together to share treatment protocols. And she’s the chair of the Zoobiquity Conference, a national education program that facilitates interdisciplinary discussions between physicians, veterinarians and other health professionals.

She co-authored the New York Times bestseller Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health.

I watched her TED Talk and found her work fascinating. I think you will too.

What are your thoughts on the human/animal health connection? Share your comments in the section at the top.



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