The Observatory

Covering the animal within

By Curtis Brainard
June 15, 2012

The promo machine for an upcoming book, Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing, by UCLA cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and science writer Kathryn Bowers, has been in high gear all week.

It started with a 4,100-word excerpt in The New York Times Sunday Review, and continued with spots on NPR and ABC News. The excerpt is about Natterson-Horowitz’s realization, while consulting for the Los Angeles Zoo, that humans and animals share many illnesses, from cancer to compulsive behavior, and that the medical community could learn a lot from those commonalities.

The promos may have left people with the false impression that teamwork between doctors and veterinarians is basically non-existent, however. Yes, “the human medical establishment has an undeniable, though unspoken, bias against veterinary medicine,” but it’s not true that they “never talk about this,” as Natterson-Horowitz told ABC News, or that they “rarely collaborate and communicate,” as she told NPR.

“Zoobiquity” is just a catchy term for comparative medicine, the study of human disease by comparison with animal disease, which is centuries old. The excerpt in the Times mentioned a pioneer of the modern discipline, 19th-century doctor William Osler, but neglected current issues in the field. Freelance reporter Katharine Gammon, who wrote the only review that made it clear that “zoobiquity isn’t without recent precedent,” said that the book does, in fact, delve into recent work in comparative medicine.

“It could be that the Times chose to focus on the most eye-popping examples instead of giving the lay of the land,” she suggested when the seeming oversight in the Times’s excerpt came up on a listserv of science writers.

That’s to be expected. Illnesses that you just wouldn’t believe afflict both humans and animals (Koalas with chlamydia!?) is an effective way to popularize a field that doesn’t get enough attention, and there’s nothing wrong with coining an alluring new buzzword in the same pursuit. But the gee-whiz tack has its drawbacks, and people (especially journalists) who don’t read the book should be aware that there’s a lot happening in comparative medicine that merits coverage.

It’s true that collaboration between docs and vets has waned over the last twenty years. A 2007 paper by Robert Cardiff, an MD at UC Davis’s Center for Comparative Medicine, provides a concise account of comparative medicine’s birth in the 18th century, its heyday in the mid-20th century, and recent decline. “The legendary giants of medical and veterinary pathology are rapidly aging and fading away,” Cardiff laments, while expressing hope in steps the American Medical Association (AMA) and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) took that year to create the One Health Commission.

Despite good articles here and there about recent work between docs and vets, comparative medicine has, in general, drawn very little coverage. One reason may be that in the five years since the AMA and AVMA pledged to give the field a shot in the arm, little has come of it, Cardiff said in an interview, adding that training, funding, and recognition for comparative medicine are still in short supply. And while outbreaks of diseases that pass from animals to humans, like SARS and avian flu, have rekindled interest in comparative medicine, there isn’t enough attention being paid to non-zoonotic diseases like diabetes and obesity.

One current issue is the proliferation of human health studies that rely on genetically engineered mice. Journalists are often warned to be suspicious of the conclusions drawn from these experiments, and with good reason. While they hold promise, biologists often don’t work with experts in human and mouse anatomy, leading to misdiagnoses of normal tissues, tumors, and other wounds. “The molecular geneticists are going wild,” Cardiff wrote in 2007. “One can only guess at the scientific catastrophe that will result without enough adequately prepared pathologists.”

Denny Liggitt, chair of the University’s of Washington’s Department of Comparative Medicine, agreed with that assessment. In an effort to address the issue, he and his colleagues recently published a comparative “atlas” of human and mouse parts. “You’d think that would’ve been done 40 years ago,” he said, “but it’s the first book that’s ever been written like that.”

Part of the problem is a controversial decision made by the National Institutes of Health last year to close its National Center for Research Resources, which provided most of the funding for comparative medicine in the latter half of the 20th century.

Important research continues, however. Sherril Green, chair of Stanford’s Department of Comparative Medicine, pointed to her colleague, Joseph Garner, who has identified biomarkers to predict, and dietary interventions to prevent, compulsive hair-pulling in mice. Likewise, Tamas Horvath, chair of Yale’s comparative medicine program, cited his colleague, Jorge Galan, who studies the way Salmonella bacteria interact with host cells in mice to cause disease.

Liggitt, Green, Horvath, all vets, agreed with Cardiff that comparative medicine passed through its own dark ages in the last couple of decades—with many departments like theirs focusing on care for and maintenance of test animals rather than research—but all three were more optimistic about a renaissance.

There’s still a cultural divide between human and animal doctors, but zoonotic diseases, drug development, and food-safety concerns have pushed both sides toward greater collaboration. That will likely mean a shift from basic to translational research, and more partnerships between universities and the private sector. Throw in the old and ongoing debate about the ethics of animal research, and there’s a lot to cover.

Liggitt, Green, and Horvath are hopeful that Zoobiquity will help the general public become a bit more interested in comparative medicine. Maybe it’ll do the same for journalists once the book tour is over.

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