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The end of lab mice: Why doctors and vets are collaborating

Posting in Cancer

Medicine is slow. Breakthroughs are usually a long-time coming, and the precautions necessary when testing possible treatments on human subjects make the process even longer.

And, there's another huge drawback: The differences between the biologies of mice and humans can be so great that lab experiments can have little application to medicine:

“The drugs cure the mice and keep failing when we try them on humans,” Dr. John Ohlfest, an immunotherapist at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center who works with veterinarians to study canine brain cancers told The New York Times. “The whole system is broken.”

But a new trend in human and veterinary medicine is for vets and medical doctors to collaborate -- partly to speed up the transition from the lab to human clinical trials, but also because the results can apply to both humans and animals.

The emerging trend

There are a number of new collaborations between medical centers and veterinary programs. A few examples:

  • The National Cancer Center has a comparative oncology program, which is coordinating canine cancer trials across the U.S.
  • The Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research at North Carolina State University's veterinary college is working with the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to study regenerating organs in humans and pets.
  • In 2006, the American Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association published a joint declaration to share information and conduct joint projects between veterinary and human medicine.

As the Times reports, "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."

The movement is part of a shift in thinking about medicine toward "one health" or "one medicine," which acknolwedges that 60% of all diseases occur across species and that the causes of disease such as environmental pollution is a cross-species problem.

One of the sparks to these collaborations was the completion of the canine genome map in 2005, which allowed canine gene codes to be matched to the human counterparts.

Types of collaboration

Vet-doctor working projects can vary from gene manipulation to orthotics.

For instance, one vet at the University of Wisconsin turned to the university's medical school for help with healing a foot wound in an Irish wolfhound. The 200-pound dog kept putting weight on his foot, so the vet and the orthotics team made a foam-lined plastic boot for the dog.

Another example is the work of Dr. Jonathan M. Levine, a veterinary neurologist at Texas A&M University, who is working with the University of California at San Francisco medical school to help injured spinal nerves. Dr. Levine works with dachshunds, which often suffer spinal cord injuries, but he also won a grant from the Department of Defense, which is interested in how his research can be applied to battlefield injuries.

Vets at Cornell and doctors at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan are applying studies of meniscus injuries in sheep to studies of how knee tissue in humans heals.

“Traditionally there has been a 10-to-20-year lag between animal and human medicine,” Dr. Chick Weisse of the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan told The Times. For the last couple years, he has been applying a frozen-nitrogen technique he learned at Sloan-Kettering hard-to-reach canine tumors. Now, he says that the transfer of knowledge from one species to another is happening so fast it's nearly simultaneous.

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: The New York Times

photo: Rama/Wikimedia Commons

— By on September 19, 2012, 8:00 PM PST

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure