Pet Health Meets Human Health: Zoobiquity Conference

Pet Health Meets Human Health: Zoobiquity Conference
Barbara Natterson-Horowitz welcomes Zoobiquity attendees

NEW YORK CITY -- It's been called "one health" or comparative medicine, and now "zoobiquity" is the in-vogue term used to describe the intersection where human and animal medicine meet.

Here's an example: Lyme disease affects dogs and people, but inexplicably, Lyme doesn't cause illness in cats. Studying the parallels of Lyme in dogs and people might help both species. Even more potentially beneficial might be pinpointing why cats don't get visibly sick when they get Lyme disease. Revealing the secret could help people and dogs.

The third Zoobiquity Conference was held in New York City on Nov. 2, with sessions at Rockefeller University and the Bronx Zoo. About 400 veterinarians, physicians, students and various health professionals attended.

"Zoobiquity" is the name of the 2012 best-selling book by Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers exploring the physiological and psychological similarities between humans and animals. The term combines the Greek word for animal, "zo," with the Latin word for everywhere, "ubique."

Horowitz, a cardiologist and professor at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, welcomed attendees: "What we have here is a unique opportunity to benefit people and animals -- to bridge divide between species."

The keynote address was delivered by Elaine Ostrander, Ph.D., of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD. She studies cancer in people and dogs, and how canine genetics may help people. Ostrander spoke about traits dog breeders for generations have purposely bred for, including one that's equivalent to a genetic disorder in people.

Microdeletion syndrome is a genetic defect in people born with several physical facial abnormalities. A gene thought to be associated with microdeletion syndrome was found in some dog breeds with pushed-in noses, like Pugs. Interestingly dog breeders purposely breed for several traits considered defects in people. When a gene change thought to be responsible was replicated in zebra fish, Ostrander noted, "We produced pug-nosed zebra fish."The implication is that if we can learn to understand the gene responsible for microdeletion syndrome in people, then manipulate the gene, it might be possible to one day to prevent the defects it causes.

Gene identification is where it's at. As several presenters at the conference pointed out, people share a great deal of genetic material with other animals on the planet.

Perhaps, the most obvious place to look at comparative medicine is in the field of oncology; our pets get many of the same cancers we do. And what about wild animals? It turns out cancers also occurs in many wild species, Dr. Denise McAloose, head of pathology at the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx Zoo, explained. One example is the endangered Amur tiger; there are fewer than 400 of these big cats left on earth.

Interestingly enough, an Amur tiger was once treated with the artificial hormone replacement called progestin, which is also used in people, was diagnosed with cancer. Progestin is associated with increased mammary cancer risk in cats and increased risk of breast cancer in people, according to veterinary oncologist Dr. Nicole Leibman, of the Animal Medical Center in New York City, and Dr. Larry Norton, deputy physician-in-chief for the Breast Cancer Programs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Medical Director of the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center, both in New York City.

Not all cancers that occur in wild animals are seen in people or pets, thank goodness. McAloose explained that tragically there's an infectious type of facial cancer affecting Tasmanian devils, a marsupial found primarily in Tasmania, off the coast of Australia. The cancer is decimating the population of this already endangered species.

In America, Lyme disease is on the rise, according to Dr. Brian Fallon, director of the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center at Columbia University in New York City. He pointed out that Lyme likely remains under-diagnosed in people and still is not clearly understood.

Dr. Richard Goldstein, chief medical officer of the Animal Medical Center, pointed out that the same is true for dogs. However, he noted, we can do more to protect dogs against Lyme than we can for people. Goldstein pointed to a "prevention package," which can include a tick collar or monthly spot-on product, and perhaps vaccination.

Goldstein noted that human medicine is working to catch up with tests and treatments veterinarians already use. For instance, a vaccine to protect people against Lyme disease is rumored to be on its way. Also, in dogs, there's already excellent diagnostic testing to determine if a pet has Lyme; in human medicine, similar simple testing doesn't yet exist.

Following discussions on these topics and others at Rockefeller University, attendees took a field trip across town to the Bronx Zoo, where they learned about everything from a lowland gorilla with a seizure disorder to a rock-eating California sea lion. At one point, 40 pounds of rocks were surgically removed from the sea lion's stomach. The animal's disorder, called pica or habitual or compulsive eating of inedible objects, can occur in people, as well as cats and dogs. Investigators want to know if there may be a common explanation for pica, regardless of species.

The philosophy behind "zoobiquity" is to enhance communication between various medical disciplines, encourage new collaborations and increase cross-species understanding, all of which may lead to new discoveries in medicine.


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