At a dinner at the Princeton Club in 1999, two cancer experts – one who treats human cancer, the other who treats cancer in dogs – meet without knowing that the other is also a melanoma expert.
At one point during the meal, the human oncologist, Jedd Wolchok, turned to the veterinary cancer expert, Philip Bergman, and asked:
“Do animals get melanoma?’’
Bergman happens to be a leading expert on how that aggressive cancer attacks dogs.
That chance encounter sparked a collaboration that in 2009 produced Oncept, an injectable melanoma treatment for pets, produced by Merial, that has extended the lives of many dogs. The underlying approach shows promise for human treatment as well.
The serendipity of human and animal medical experts joining forces is at the heart of the revolutionary concept proposed by a newly released book, “Zoobiquity’’ (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95), urging human doctors and veterinarians to work together to tackle diseases and conditions that afflict both animal and human species.
Animals and humans get the same diseases, says co-author Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist at UCLA Medical Center who also helps to treat zoo animals.
Yet physicians and veterinarians almost never talk to each other, much less share research, treatments and other insights.
In working with zoo animals, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz discovered that from treating cancer to heart disease, veterinarians have ways of addressing diseases that human doctors don’t know about. So she wondered: What might happen if human and animal experts worked together?
In the book, co-authored with science author and editor Kathryn Bowers, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz encourages doctors, dentists, psychologists, veterinarians and wildlife biologists to work together in a revolutionary new approach to treating both animals and humans.
Zoobiquity is filled with surprising examples of how animals suffer afflictions that trouble humans: wallabies that munch poppies in the field and get addicted to opium, dragonflies that suffer obesity. Like some humans, a Yorkshire Terrier or Cavalier King Charles Spaniel might faint after having blood drawn or being vaccinated. And if you think cancer is a modern malady, you will learn from fresh research that cancer struck dinosaurs tens of millions of years ago.
Most tantalizing are the possibilities raised for broader collaboration.
While most Doberman Pinschers are healthy, the breed can develop compulsive behaviors such as tale chasing or paw chewing. The book notes that world renowned animal behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman of Tufts University has worked with physicians to isolate a gene associated with these compulsions.
“Human researchers at the National Institutes of Mental Health are now looking at the human genome for that dog pattern – or a similar one – that might underlie human OCD,’’ says Dr. Natterson-Horowitz.
While much of the potential for crossover research remains theoretical for now, the authors are excited by the possibilities arising from some work already under way. For example, the book suggests a landmark study by the non-profit Morris Animal Foundation could hold insights into
human cancer as well.
The Canine Lifetime Health Project, a long-term cancer study of 3,000 Golden Retrievers across the United States, will also focus on broader environmental factors, such as secondhand smoke, household cleaners and even how far the dogs live from power lines and freeways.
“Dog cancer has many stories to tell about human cancer: where it comes from, why it migrates, and, possibly, how to stop it in its tracks,’’ the book notes. “A multispecies take on cancer research means our special relationship with man’s best friend is about to get even closer.’’
For more information visit Zoobiquity.