Man’s best friend: how veterinary research could save human lives

Story originally published by The Guardian

Every two to three months, Elizabeth Roberts says goodbye to her kids and husband and loads up Scooby Doo, the family’s three-legged, 12-year-old Labrador retriever, into the back of her SUV. She drives to the ferry from where they live on Martha’s Vineyard and takes the 45-minute boat ride to the mainland.

From there, she has another six- to seven-hour drive to her parents’ home outside Philadelphia, where she and Scooby Doo spend the night before driving to the University of Pennsylvania in the morning. All this for an experimental osteosarcoma clinical trial that has extended Scooby Doo’s life expectancy from one year to going on three years now.

“Knock on wood, Scoob is still doing great,” Roberts says.

The treatment is working so well, in fact, that the FDA has approved a trial in children who develop a similar cancer. It is the latest advancement in animal research that is making its way into human medicine.

As dogs and cats become more like family members to pet owners, veterinary medicine has become increasingly like human medicine. Vet schools offer specialty training like oncology, nutrition and orthopedics; cutting-edge therapeutic treatments like 3D-printed bones and stem cell therapy were developed to help ensure our pets have long and healthy lives.

An added bonus to this advance: remedies developed for our pets are going to be safe and useful to people.

One Health – the idea that humans, animals and the environment all thrive and suffer for the same reasons – is gaining in popularity and practice. As a result, vets now regularly team up with doctors to research health issues that affect both pets and pet owners, and the health experts look into how their practices can help each other.

Scooby Doo’s immune therapy treatment takes place at Matthew J Ryan hospital at Penn, under the care of Dr Nicola Mason. Mason says that certain cancers, like osteosarcoma, that appear spontaneously in dogs are very similar in humans. The bone cancer shows up in patients as young as 10 and there are 400 human cases a year, with sufferers facing amputation or surgery followed by intensive chemotherapy to root out what the amputation misses. While people have about a 70% survival rate five years after diagnosis, dogs, whose chemotherapy is not as harsh as humans’, are essentially given a death sentence.

“It’s very important in the vet world to maintain a good quality of life,” Mason says. “In humans, it tends to be quantity.”

Mason turned to immunotherapy for a gentler solution. After amputation, the dogs are given a bacterial vaccine that takes care of any errant cancer cells. “The treatment is saying to the immune system: ‘Hey, wake up, you have to go find tumor cells,’” she explains.

Some of the first dogs treated back in 2012, including Scooby Doo, are still alive three years later. The vaccine is currently being evaluated by the USDA for a conditional license, which would allow dogs outside the trial to get treatment by the middle of next year. For human patients, the vaccine could go into clinical trials as early as this year.

Mason says she never imagined when she was getting into veterinary medicine that she’d be helping people. Now, she says it’s the way medicine should be practiced: “It’s a two for one approach.”

Dr Boaz Arzi, a veterinarian at the University of California at Davis, is working on a clinical trial with doctors from the campus’s medical school who use stem cell therapy to treat cats living with an oral inflammatory disease.

The felines get their own stem cells pulled and isolated from fat cells. The stem cells, which are known to have anti-inflammatory and regenerative properties, are injected into a vein. The still in-development treatment has worked on several cats and had minimal side effects, meaning, Arzi says, that trials for humans are likely.

Besides his work with stem cells, Arzi also helped develop new reconstructive procedures using 3D printers to make parts of jawbones for dogs. Soft- and hard-tissue tumors often show up in dogs’ mouths and grow into the bone. They are usually surgically removed and leave a gap in the dog’s jaw line that can cause ulcerations, jaw drift and mobility issues. Using bone regrowth techniques, including proteins that promote such regrowth, the veterinarians rebuilt dog jaws . This research could also lead to human trials.

In 2007, the American Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association passed a resolution to work closer together for the benefit of humans and animal medicine. As the medical communities converge, ethical problems in human medicine are spreading to pets. Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist who has written extensively on animals and pets, says that she considers all the new treatment options both a good and bad thing. The ability to extend pets lives’ is going to have to come with some soul searching.

“There are a lot more opportunities to prolong their agony,” Pierce says. “We fall into the same traps with our pets that we do with our loved ones.”

Dr Joan Hendricks, dean of the veterinary school at Penn, doesn’t agree. She says that veterinarians don’t put companion animals through nearly as much as humans frequently undergo in hospitals. “You don’t do to a dog what you’d do to a human,” she says.

Another pressing dilemma might be financial. If One Health continues its upward trend, the cost difference between human and pet medicine will have to be reckoned with eventually.

Hendricks says in her 40 years as a veterinarian, the amount pet owners are willing to spend on treatment has dramatically increased. But while people are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on their dogs and cats, she points out it still falls short of the hundreds of thousands of dollars people are willing to spend on human family members.

In the best-case scenario, collaboration could one day lower medical costs for people. Otherwise, the One Health partnership might eventually arrive at insurmountable financial barriers, as human medical costs remain impractical for veterinarians.

In the meantime, Mason’s research might be the first proof of concept that One Health is here and working for everyone, furry or not.

“I’m happy that by saving Scooby, he might one day help children with cancer,” Roberts says. “I don’t know where we’d be as humans if we didn’t have studies like this.