Cancer: Veterinarians and physicians should learn from each other

August 25, 2013 | by

Human and animal bodies are remarkably similar. No surprise. More of a surprise – except to veterinarians perhaps – is that their diseases, including cancer, are similar as well.

Breast cancer has been found in almost every mammal in which it's been searched, including beluga whales. There are lessons here, posits the book "Zoobiquity."

Breast cancer has been found in almost every mammal in which it's been searched, including beluga whales. There are lessons here, posits the book "Zoobiquity."

The current mission of author and cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D., is to highlight these similarities, for the greater good of all species. In the new book Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health, Natterson-Horowitz and co-author journalist Kathryn Bowers explore a "pan-species approach to medicine" in which animal and human similarities can be used not only to diagnose disease but to treat humans and animals alike.

In a recent presentation at City of Hope outlining the themes in her book, Natterson-Horowitz posed the questions:

Do animals get:

  • Breast cancer?
  • Prostate cancer?
  • Sudden cardiac death?
  • Atrial fibrillation?
  • Glioblastoma?
  • Melanoma?
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome?
  • Epilepsy?
  • Sexually transmitted diseases?

The answer, Natterson-Horowitz said, is "of course, yes." But the "of course" hasn’t always been obvious. Although doctors-in-training once studied comparative medicine, such training hasn’t been standard curriculum for many years. Pity. Doctors and veterinarians have much to learn from each other – to the benefit of their patients – as "Zoobiquity" elegantly explains.

Of their book, the authors write:

"It introduces a new approach that could improve the health of both human and animal patients. This approach is based on a simple reality: animals in jungles, oceans, forests, and our homes sometimes get sick — just as we do. Veterinarians see and treat these illnesses among a wide variety of species. And yet physicians largely ignore this. That’s a major blind spot, because we could improve the health of all species by learning how animals live, die, get sick, and heal in their natural settings."

Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiology professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, was launched on this exploration by her work for the Los Angeles Zoo. Veterinarians there asked for her opinion from time to time on their more difficult cases. She found the work so fascinating that she became more and more intrigued by the connections between animal health and human health. Ultimately, she and Bowers went on to explore a wide range of animal disorders, among them addiction, obesity (even in wild populations), eating disorders, sexually transmitted diseases and more.

In the City of Hope presentation, Natterson-Horowitz pointed out that breast cancer has been found in almost every mammal for which it’s been searched: whales, big cats (especially Venezuelan jaguars), water buffalos, koalas, llamas, you name it, they all develop breast cancer.

A notable explanation is what she termed "professional lactaters," such as dairy cows and goats. This might not surprise researchers, doctors and members of the lay public aware of the link between breast-feeding and breast cancer risk. But the animal data casts the connection in a new and perhaps productive light in terms of research avenues.

As for the Venezuelan jaguars, they appear to carry a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, also carried by many women with breast cancer. Again, another avenue of exploration that could benefit humans.

In her presentation, Natterson-Horowitz also explored the high rates of osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, among dogs, especially large dogs such as golden retrievers and Burmese mountain dogs. This is notable because osteosarcoma is the most common bone cancer in children, usually diagnosed during the teenage years when kids are growing rapidly.

As for the risk to golden retrievers specifically,  the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study will attempt to home in on this risk, helping to improve the health of future generations of dogs, but also, maybe, humans.

More such studies – and collaborations – are needed.

As Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers say in the close of their book:

"Our essential connection with animals is ancient, and it runs deep. It extends from body to behavior, from psychology to society – forming the basis of our daily journey of survival. This calls for physicians and patients to think beyond the human bedside to barnyards, jungles, oceans, and skies. Because the fate of our world’s health doesn’t depend solely on how we humans fare. Rather, it will be determined by how all the patients on the planet live, grow, get sick, and heal."

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