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Future of Human Health May Rest in the Paws of our Animal Brethren

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Lindsey Foat | KCPT News 

Imagine this. Your doctor diagnoses you with chlamydia, but says that new treatments are available based on what they’ve learned from observing koala populations with the clap.

In addition to the bizarrely consoling fact that our marsupial friends also have to deal with STDs, this sort of collaboration between veterinarians and physicians may be key to advancing science and the health of all species.

In the book Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health, co-author Kathryn Bowers examines a surprising litany of medical and even psychological ailments that affect humans and other species including breast cancer in jaguars and bulimia in beluga whales.

Bowers gave the keynote speech at the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute’s 2013 Animal Health Research Symposium on August 26, 2013.

“Traditionally human medicine has been in a position to educate veterinary medicine,” Bowers said. “What Zoobiquity is trying to do is look at the vast intellectual resources of the veterinary side and say veterinarians are fully trained, intelligent doctors who have a lot to contribute to understanding human medicine.”

Through her research with UCLA cardiologist Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, Bowers found that while veterinarians knew that seemingly human ailments and neuroses span the animal kingdom, physicians are missing the biological boat.

This point was further illustrated during her speech when Bowers asked for a show of hands from any physicians in the room. Not a single hand went up in the audience of mostly veterinarians.

“I would say the honest reason why most physicians have not gotten involved is that they are what I like to call ‘benevolently ignorant’,” Bowers said. “This is just something that no one has thought about deeply.”

However, Bowers feels that Kansas City is ripe for what she calls “zoobiquitous research.”

“Kansas City is the perfect place to start a major conversation about animal and human health and where these two areas should be connecting in order to improve the health of all species,” Bowers said. “You have the intellectual and academic resources, an activated business community that’s interested, world experts on animal health and leading experts on human health. It seems like an ideal place to become a center of gravity for thinking in a comparative, zoobiquitous manner.”

Another presenter at the conference was Lisa A. Stehno-Bittel. She is a University of Kansas researcher and co-founder of the biotech firm Likarda.

Stehno-Bittel began researching diabetes in humans nearly twenty years ago and worked specifically with transplanting islets, the pancreatic cells that produce insulin.

In 2012, Stehno-Bittel says that she kept hearing about the need for new treatments for canine and feline diabetes and decided to incorporate that research into her newly founded biotech firm.

“I did a search for the research that had been done previously on dogs and islet transplants,” Stehno-Bittel said. “I expected to see maybe 100 papers … but there were over 650 papers, so thousands of dogs have had islet transplants … it had worked very well in the dogs and yet it wasn’t being offered as a therapeutic intervention for them.”

So much research existed in part because dogs were used in clinical trials to determine if islet transplants might be a treatment option for humans.

“I think we’re a perfect example of what Kathryn Bower is talking about,” Stehno-Bittel said. “Zoobiquity is using natural diseases that you find in animals, studying and curing it, and then using that information to help find cures for humans as well … we’re just bringing [islet] therapy back to dogs and we believe that as we do that we’ll also learn more answers that we can feed back to the human islet transplant world.”

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