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Species-Spanning Medicine

To those involved with treating and researching animal diseases, the increased respect from those in the world of human medical research is palpable. Dr. Jorge A. Piedrahita, geneticist and professor in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences at NCSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, remembers a time when overtures from the veterinary medical community to the human one would result in “blank stares, as if they were thinking, What would we want with you?

“The human medicine field in the past has looked at us [veterinary schools] as technicians,” he says. “They came to us if they needed a pig or a dog, but they never saw us as partners. Now we sit with them really as equals.”

Piedrahita serves as director of the Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research, which was created seven years ago. Based at NCSU, one of the first vet schools in the country to fully jump on the one-medicine bandwagon, the center includes 116 researchers at five colleges. The thinking behind the center, he says, is “if we help one species, we’re helping all of them.”

Since then, Piedrahita says, the road between veterinary practitioners and doctors has become much more of a two-way street. “There have been an amazing number of new interactions, and we’re still a very young center. It’s really becoming almost like a partnership.”

Doctors and vets are not the only two cultures the movement has brought closer together, he notes. It has also led to “increased sharing between clinicians, or those working with patients, and researchers, who are confined to labs.” The result, he says, is faster and more efficient research, capable of reaching solutions sooner.

Breen’s cancer research is one example of that. Another is a project Piedrahita is involved with in conjunction with Wake Forest University’s Center for Regenerative Medicine, which is seeking a solution to urinary incontinence.

While it’s a significant issue for women, especially elderly ones, one might not think that dogs—generally a less-prone-to-embarrassment species—would rank it too high, even the spayed ones, in which it is most common. Piedrahita is quick to correct that thinking.

“It’s a very big deal,” he says. “It’s the reason many of them end up in shelters, or being returned to shelters. For the dog, it may not be that big of a deal, but for the owner, it is.”

Throw in its human applications, and it becomes even bigger.

Using cells from the patient—for now, canine patients—the treatment involves reinjecting cells, usually taken from a leg muscle, into the urethral sphincter itself, where they regenerate and build new muscle. The project has received funding from the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation, and clinical trials involving as many as 40 dogs were expected to begin in January.

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Of all the microscopic matters detected in a typical veterinary research lab, irony is not usually among them. But here’s one that has surfaced.

Among purebreds, breeding for certain traits, and to get a certain look—most often accomplished by using dogs who are closely related—has led to recessive disorders, more than those found in any other animal except humans.

It’s believed to be why Boxers are prone to mast-cell cancer and brain tumors, Scottish Terriers to bladder cancer, and Bernese Mountain Dogs to histiocytic sarcoma. It’s why one in five Golden Retrievers is diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma.

But the limited genetic diversity that has led to cancer-causing mutations in many purebreds is also what has led to dogs becoming such a valuable tool in studying disease. Breen compares it to tuning in a radio station. With the dog genome, there’s none of the noise and static from competing frequencies—just a clear signal.

Pointing fingers is useless, Breen says. “I don’t blame anybody.” But he’s among the first to admit that limiting the gene pool has made purebred dogs “a very powerful tool for simplifying genetics.”

With their “less noisy” genetic make-up, purebred dogs offer a speedier research route. It takes thousands of human patients with cancer to identify risk factors, he notes, but the same can be accomplished with as few as 100 canine patients.

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Submitted by Anonymous | April 26 2013 |

Dear John Woestendiek, I don't wish to offend you but I don't want my dog to be used as an experiment though I realize the benefit of the medical community to enhance the life of my dog so I agree what you have written on page 1 of your article to some extent, but I've lost too many cats to experiments. There seems to be a conflict of interest what the National Center for Infectious Diseases says about dogs, which doesn't refer to the same link that you provide in your article.

I have a dog and a cat. I am their Mother. They think I am their Mother and I agree with them.:) I've had them since they both were around 2 weeks old:) I've invested a lot of love and energy into their health and welfare. Please consider they are my children since I was never able to have children.

Page 2 of your article John states, “Dogs, long our antidote for loneliness, may hold the most promise of all animals when it comes to solving medical mysteries and curing what ails us.”

My comment from the National Center from Infectious Diseases states:
Pets can decrease your:
Blood pressure
Cholesterol levels
Triglyceride levels
Feelings of loneliness

Pets can increase your:
Opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities
Opportunities for socialization
http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health_benefits.htm

Regarding page 5 and 6 of the article by John Woestendiek, my comment from the National Center from Infectious Diseases:
Diseases from Dogs
Although dogs can pass germs to people, you are not likely to get sick from touching or owning dogs. To best protect yourself from getting sick, thoroughly wash your hands with running water and soap after contact with dogs, dog saliva, or dog feces (stool).
Dogs can carry a variety of germs that can make people sick. Some of these germs are common and some are rare. For example, puppies may pass the bacterium Campylobacter in their feces (stool). This germ can cause diarrhea in people. Puppies and some adult dogs often carry a variety of parasites that can cause rashes or illness in people. Less often, dogs in urban or rural areas can carry the bacterium Leptospira (lep-TO-spy-ruh). This germ causes the disease leptospirosis (lep-to-spi-roh-sis) in people and animals. Dogs can also carry rabies, a deadly viral disease. Rabies from dogs is rare in the United States.
Some people are more likely than others to get diseases from dogs. A person's age and health status may affect his or her immune system, increasing the chances of getting sick. People who are more likely to get diseases from dogs include infants, children younger than 5 years old, organ transplant patients, people with HIV/AIDS, and people being treated for cancer.
http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/animals/dogs.htm

I understand the importance of scientific research since I too am a researcher. Thank you for your consideration in this matter. Best wishes to you.

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