Veterinary Medicine: Fertile Ground For Research And Development Of New Technologies In Human Medicine

Article originally posted at 2004.

There is a phrase that says, "medicine can cure men, but only
veterinary medicine has the potential to cure humanity". Today that
phrase is becoming a reality of the world we are living in. In the
first decade of the twenty-first century, veterinarians not only work
hard to keep pets healthy, are playing important roles in saving
human lives. As a member of this prestigious yet, underpaid
profession, I am proud to say that veterinarians would soon be at the
vanguard of both human and animal care. This can be contributed to
government regulations, ethical concerns of our society and the
efforts of pet owners across the world. Stem cell research, gene
therapy, therapeutic cloning and even under certain circumstances
nanotechnology are words that most politicians fear to discuss and
some sectors of the religious community even abominate.
Veterinarians, on the other hand, simply love and embrace these new
modalities of technologies that represent new ways to diagnose and
treat multiple disease conditions affecting animals and humans alike.

Through the last decades, controversial government regulations have
been effectively delaying as well as stopping the use of new
technologies in the field of human medicine. Regulatory agencies
usually adopt an adversarial position against new therapies derived
from the biotechnology and nanotechnology fields. They try to
regulate individual devices and drugs and assume that new therapies
are both unsafe and don't work until proven otherwise. These
regulations are well known to create a bottleneck effect in the
development of new therapies and to increase the approval time for
the commercialization of new technologies. The moral quandaries and
bioethical concerns about new frontiers of medical science represent
another obstacle for their implementation as routine forms of
therapies. Research and development of new medical technologies can
be also considered a waste of time and money by some sectors in our
government. But thanks to the entrepreneur spirit and the
understanding that in our society different moral and ethical
standards apply to the health care of pets, veterinarians are taking
advantage of regulatory loopholes to bring these technologies into
the field of veterinary medicine. After all, it may be unethical to
save a human live using a treatment derivative from human stem cell
research, but there may not be any opposition to animal stem cell
research if it is used to save a beloved pet.

It is not a secret that veterinarians have always been a driving
force in the world of medicine. Starting with their contributions on
agriculture a couple of centuries ago, they progressed to be the
first people performing certain medical procedures using reproductive
technology. Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and
cloning were introduced into the veterinary field long before the
human medical field. In the first decade of the twenty-first century,
veterinary medicine has become very sophisticated. The common
general practitioner of the mid twentieth century performed spays and
neuters, which were considered among the most elaborate procedures of
that time. Since then, they have evolved into different specialties
that have nothing to envy of the human medical profession. Today it
is common to see pets being referred to cardiologists,
ophthalmologists, and oncologists. According to the American
Veterinary Medical Association there are approximately seven thousand
or more veterinary specialists in the United States alone. Laser
surgery, endoscopies and even magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are
becoming part of the standard of care in certain veterinary hospitals.

When it comes to technologies like gene therapy, tissue engineering
or nanotechnology, there is no doubt their use on veterinary medicine
will yield immediate insights for human medical research. For a long
time, research on animal diseases has been used as models for the
same or similar conditions affecting humans. Lets talk for example
about Osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a syndrome affecting the
synovial joints that is characterized by pain and dysfunction,
associated with degeneration or the articular cartilage and changes
in the surrounding tissues. In severe cases this condition produces
constant pain along with severe functional disability. Current
therapy is for the most part palliative, aiming to reduce pain and
inflammation while maintaining or improving joint function without
altering the pathologic process in the tissues. In some cases
analgesic and anti-inflammatory products do not provide relief of
signs and are less than perfectly appealing because of side effects
and cost. Research projects are underway to investigate the use of
adult and embryonic stem cells as cartilage producing cells that may
one day be used for transplantation. Adult stem cells can be obtained
from bone marrow aspirations of healthy patients. Embryonic stem
cells are taken from the inner cell mass of blastocysts (one of the
stages of the embryo development) and grown into colonies called
lines. Because during the process of collection of stem cells the
embryo is destroyed, some sectors of society oppose to the procedure,
likening it to abortion. Some fear that allowing the use of stem
cells would create a market for human embryos, while others believe
this can progress to the eventual creation of a human clone.
Scientists had discovered that through manipulation of culture
conditions, both types of stem cells could differentiate into
multiple tissue-specific cells including cartilage and bone producing
cells. There is some concern over the use of adult stem cells from
aged animals as they may be less successful to produce cells that can
differentiate into cartilage or bone. Embryonic cells however don't
seem to have that same problem. Another area of investigation in
Osteoarthritis is the use of gene therapy. Gene therapy is the
modification of genetic material of living cells for a therapeutic
process. The gene of interest can be delivered into cells through a
viral agent or a nanopharmaceutical compound. Once into the cell, the
transferred gene is meant to synthesize growth factors that would
encourage the production of healthy cartilage by the body. To date,
gene therapy experiments in articular cartilage have achieved
expression of active proteins in cultured cartilage producing cells
and after transplanted into live horses and rabbits. As we can
appreciate, gene therapy holds tremendous promises for medical use in
Osteoarthritis and other health conditions.

Another example of the contributions of veterinarians to the world of
medicine is the research on Retinitis Pigmentosa, a condition that
affects more than nine million Americans. This is an inherited
condition commonly diagnosed during childhood and in young adults. It
produces severe vision loss that can lead to blindness. Thanks to the
use of gene therapy, veterinary researchers have been able to restore
vision in dogs born with a severe form of this ocular condition.
Other researchers have slowed vision loss by transplanting
genetically engineered retinal cells into the eye. Genetically
engineered tissues can eventually be considered as a safe source of
donor tissue for the treatment of eyes and other organ conditions. In
a country where every year approximately eighty-four thousand people
are waiting for organ transplants, the use of tissue engineering
looks very promising.

Cancer is a condition associated with the uncontrolled growth of
abnormal cells within the body. These cells may form tumors that can
create a variety of painful and serious problems. A diagnosis of
cancer is always equally frightening for both pet owners and humans
alike, but with today's medical treatment, nutrition and new
technologies our opportunities to conquest this condition are better
than those of a couple of decades ago. The experience of veterinary
medicine indicates that there are certain factors that can influence
the incidence of cancer in the pet population. Those factors include
age, breed, gender and environment. One of the newest fields of
research that could have a positive influence on the diagnosis and
treatment of cancer is nanotechnology. Thanks to nanotechnology, a
complete new set of tools for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer
in the pet population will be available to veterinarians all around
the world. For example, with the use of magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI) along with fluorescents nanoparticles researchers are able to
visualize the lymphatic drainage of mice affected with breast cancer.
This technique may have a very important application in the diagnosis
and treatment of human breast cancer. According to the American
Cancer Society, every year an estimate of approximately two hundred
thousand women will be diagnosed with breast cancer that had already
spread to other organs. Excluding skin cancer, breast cancer is the
most common cancer among women. The use of nanoparticles could
simplify exploratory surgeries by localizing tumors and affected
lymph nodes more efficiently, making the surgical procedures in some
cases less invasive. Recently there has been some concern about the
potential toxic effects of nanoparticles in both human and animals.
While the potential benefits or toxic effects of these nanostructures
have yet to be determined with the use of more research studies, it
is important to recall that the use of these nanostructures could
also help with other health problems besides cancer. Nanoparticles
could highlight cells or processes of interest in an animal, and
could provide us with a lot of information about how the body works.

Unfortunately, most members of our government, along with the bio and
nanotechnology industries and the general public, don't understand
the full potential of veterinary medicine for the development and
commercialization of these technologies. Because of their broad-based
understanding of medicine, public health, environmental determination
on health and population medicine, the veterinary profession can be a
strong ally in forming public policy development. New technologies
are always misunderstood and unfortunately the industry may be
failing in explaining its potential. Bad publicity of new
technologies is always the result of public misunderstanding of
scientific information. The experience of the veterinary profession
dealing with the media bias and negative publicity can be another
asset that may prove useful for these industries. While veterinary
medicine is considered one of the most trusted professions, it is not
immune to the effects of negative publicity by the media. The most
recent publicity crisis the profession has been dealing with in
recent years had to do with the use of vaccines in companion animals
and the pressure of some animal right activists groups in regards to
the treatment of farm and laboratory animals. How the profession
deals with those issues can prove very useful for the bio and
nanotechnology industries; after all veterinarians and the industry
may be sharing the same objective, which is to improve the health and
longevity of both humans and animals. Usually negative publicity
comes from people who are off based and infused with emotions. The
veterinary profession knows that emotions grab headlines. They also
know that the use of good science, common sense, showing compassion
and being honest have proven to be the best weapons against a bad
publicity crisis. We just need to remember that perception is
everything, and if the industry can develop an educational program
based on those four points, then the general public is going to look
at the opponents of the use of these technologies as a sector that is
off beat and in some cases aggressive.

Once the use of new technologies becomes widely spread in veterinary
medicine it will yield immediately new and useful insights for human
medicine. Soon veterinary medicine would be in the position to offer
medical marvels that may transform the legal, ethical and regulatory
sectors of the medical field. We can't finish this article without
discussing the enormous influence pet lovers can have in the bio and
nanotechnology markets. Pet owners across the United States spend
approximately nineteen million dollars per year on veterinary care
and that amount is expected to increase in the years to come. In the
beginning, the applications of these technologies are going to be
expensive. Some people may even be reluctant or not able to pay
thousands of dollars to save the lives of their pets. But we can't
forget about those hundreds of thousands of pet lovers who would do
anything to save the lives of their cherished companions. The very
effectiveness of these technologies and the influence of pet lovers
demanding services based on bio or nanotechnology will slowly, but
inevitably, undermine the religious, moral and ethical arguments
against the use of therapies derived from research on stem cells,
gene therapy and nanotechnology. Once you have a healthier pet
population with an increased longevity rate, the demand for the same
kind of therapies in the human medical field is going to increase
dramatically. Pet lovers across the world can be an important ally to
the industry in the fight to overturn those government regulations
that are restricting the use of new technologies and depriving us
from their potential benefits. There is much to be learned about how
to make these technologies useful against health conditions affecting
the human and animal population, in the mean time, their applications
in the veterinary field can serve as a guideline to deal with them in
the future of human medicine.


Dr. Jose Feneque, DVM, received his Bachelor of Science degree in
Animal Industry at the University of Puerto Rico in 1991 and his
Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia in
1996. He practices as an associate veterinarian at Crossroads Animal
Hospital in Miami, Florida and is a member of the Science Advisory
Board for the Nanotechnology Development Corporation. His special
interests include the veterinary applications of nanotechnology,
veterinary pediatrics, soft tissue surgery and internal medicine. He
can be contacted by phone at (305) 279- 2000 or via email at

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Tags: Cells, Nanoparticles, Nanotechnology, Pets, Stem, Veterinary


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