Helping animals to help humans
There’s one creature we’ve left out so far when talking about all the different ways we can help animals, and that’s us! Humans! So how might veterinary medicine play a role in human health, and we don’t mean going to the vet instead of the doctors! Chris Smith was joined in studio by Frances Henson, who works on the concept of “One Health” at the University of Cambridge...
Frances - Well one health traditionally was looking, as we've mentioned before, at how diseases of animals transfer into man and the impact that that has on man. So examples of that are tuberculosis, which we find obviously in cattle transferred to humans in milk. But in recent years the idea of one health has become a little wider and it's now starting to include the idea of individual diseases. So I’m particularly interested in joint diseases and therefore I think many, many of these things can be linked.
Chris - One interesting point is that although dogs are animals, they share our world, so they very much are exposed to many of the same risk factors that we are. If the dog's owner smokes, for example, the dog becomes a passive smoker so is that part of what you're advocating, that actually by studying animals and humans in a shared context you can learn a lot from both.
Frances - Yeah you certainly can. As you quite rightly said, dogs do share our world and it's incredibly interesting why they both get the same diseases as us and diseases that they don't get. So dog in a smoking household, it’s very rare for dogs to get lung cancer. So trying to understand why that doesn't happen can give us huge amount of information as to why people can get it.
Chris - The other animal that doesn't get cancer is the horse, isn't it. Horses seem to get much less cancer than they should. Do we know why?
Frances - No we really don't know why. They live a long time. People have argued because they’re vegetarians and they have high degree of movement that somehow protects them. But we really don't understand that, they get very, very low incidence of solid tumors. All they seem to get some rare skin cancers.
Chris - And so are people actually actively pursuing that, to say well, what's different about the horse compared to the horse's owner, that one's more likely to succumb to cancer than the other.
Frances - Well that is a fantastic idea. Unfortunately, whilst people might want to do that, getting funding for specific veterinary research is very, very difficult. And so researchers like myself join ranks with other types of scientists and particularly with medicine, in order that we can get funds to look at basic diseases rather than relying on veterinary funding. As I say it’s a very poorly, sadly very poorly, funded field.
Chris - But is it a two way street in the sense that, ‘cause you're saying you're teaming up with medics and you use that to liberate some funding, but do you then discover things that will then go back into the veterinary clinic to help the animals too.
Francis - Yeah we certainly do, so people working on this One Health agenda really want to have treatments and therapies that can be used for all large mammalian species. So as I said before, I'm really interested in joint health and we heard earlier in the program about people developing scaffolds to put stem cells in. But if we can develop those scaffolds and perhaps growth factors to potentially help those cells grow we can put those cells back into the human defects in joints or in skin or we could put them back into animal defects and skin. So I think if we get the fundamental principles right it's equally able to apply those across all the species.
Chris - And cynically, is it that if you do an experiment on a human, a) it's an ethical nightmare and b) it's much more risky because they might sue you, whereas is an element of this that if I do an experiment on a dog, I'm doing it with the best intentions but if it goes wrong it's, and it sounds awful, but it's still a dog, it's not someone who's going to turn and sue you.
Frances - Vets do get sued. But you're quite right, the ethical permissions to do experimental work on owned animals with effective clinical disease, it's that you can do that but we do have to go through a lot of ethical frameworks and we have to get licenses from Defra [Department for Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs] and so on. And so it's not totally straightforward but potentially it is easier. And if we're looking at something that is life threatening and terminal for these animals, many owners will want us to help them in clinical trials to see if these therapies are effective.
Chris - A friend of mine's a pathologist and she had a much loved pet dog that developed a very bizarre tumor and she, of course, knows quite a lot about those sorts of tumors. But she paid a lot of money to a very good vet to do quite radical surgery on her dog. And I think it bought him a little bit more time. But at the same time it's an important learning process because obviously for that vet seeing that tumor in that context, it's an opportunity to try to do some surgery which they might not have the option to do very often because it's so costly and many owners might decide it's kinder and cheaper to put the dog down.
Frances - Yeah that's a very good point, it's that real balance isn't it, the balance, what you put that individual animal through to try and get a few more weeks and months and some owners of course in that situation they really don't want their dog to be, as they perhaps perceive it to be, experimented upon. So certainly in our clinical practice we see that whole range of opinion from people very, very keen to go for novel therapies back to right down to people who really don't want to have any part of that.
Chris - And in your research looking at joint and tendon repairs and things, what are you actually doing and what's the problem trying to solve?
Frances - Well, from my perspective as an equine vet, so I'm a horse vet, I became very frustrated that we didn't have good treatments for arthritis and for tendon and muscle injuries. And so I really want to try and push through developing new therapies and new treatments. And so I've become involved a research project to step back and look at some of the underlying principles. To be perfectly honest we don't even know what causes arthritis in people or in humans or dogs or any of the other animals we've talked about today. And so by understanding the principles of why we get the disease we can then perhaps start to devise much better and more effective therapies.
Chris - And do the disease processes mirror one another? Does what a human ostensibly calls arthritis, is that the same thing that your average dog in their old age gets, and Dolly the sheep was allegedly suffering?
Frances - Absolutely. It certainly looks like that on x-rays, it looks the same on MRI scans, it looks the same. And if you look at those joints under pathological sections the histology looks exactly the same so I think they are very similar.
Chris - And are we learning, Frances, from sort of outbreaks that you get in animals that can inform how a) to manage the human equivalent and b) how diseases evolve and change because of what happens in groups of animals.
Frances - Yes I think we can. I think I'm more interested and have more experience in single individual diseases but certainly how things behave, when we talked earlier in the program about stem cells and using bone marrow-derived stem cells in horses to repair tendon disease really informed the human practice. And so that's a really good example of how horse therapies have now become quite mainstream in human medicine.
Chris - So where is this whole field going? You're saying it's not very well funded, which is a worry given how many animals there are on Earth and, you know, that they outnumber us humans by many fold, don't they, partly because we're keeping a lot of them to eat but at the same time there's a lot of them and we move them around as Richard was saying. So there are lots of risks, why are we not putting more resource into studying this?
Frances - Well I think there are many many competitions on research funding. Lots of people have very important projects they want to get funding and whilst we may perceive that some of our areas are very important other funding bodies may not particularly think that they are more or less important. I think we get headlines when we get big outbreaks of disease and I think that can draw further funding but certainly for individual diseases that usually remains the remit of the individual disease society such as the arthritis societies.