Three times in the last two months, researchers from St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan headed across town to the Animal Medical Center to look at dogs.
Doctors at the hospital’s Vascular Birthmark Institute were enticed by the chance to study anomalies of the arteries and veins that are rare in humans but common in dogs. And the traffic between human and animal hospitals flows in the other direction, too: Late last month, veterinarians from the Animal Medical Center began meeting with their counterparts at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to set up trials of a noninvasive device for removing tumors of the urinary tract with electrical impulses.
Exchanges of this sort are becoming increasingly common. Once a narrow trail traveled by a few hardy pioneers, the road connecting veterinary colleges and human medical institutions has become a busy thoroughfare over the last five years or so, with a steady flow of researchers representing a wide variety of medical disciplines on both sides.
One reason is a growing frustration with the inefficiency of using the rodent model in lab research, which often fails to translate to human subjects. So researchers are turning their attention to the naturally occurring diseases in dogs, horses, sheep and pigs, whose physiology and anatomy more closely resemble those of humans.
“The drugs cure the mice and keep failing when we try them on humans,” said Dr. John Ohlfest, an immunotherapist at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center, who began working with the university’s veterinary school in 2005 to study canine brain cancers. “The whole system is broken.”
Dr. Laurence J. N. Cooper, who develops immune-based therapies at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and recently started making canine T cells for lymphoma research at Texas A&M’s veterinary school, said: “There’s got to be a better way. Canine biologies look like ours, and the treatments look like ours.”
The growing realization that vets and medical doctors may have very good reasons to talk to one another has led to a host of collaborative research projects aimed at speeding the journey from lab to human clinical trials and, in the end, producing a result that can be applied to human and animal patients alike.
These projects often emanate from partnerships like the National Cancer Center’s comparative oncology program, created in 2006 to coordinate canine cancer trials among 20 oncology centers across the United States, or the Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research at North Carolina State University’s veterinary college, which recently signed a partnership agreement with the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to do research on regenerating organs in humans and pets.