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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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