Bioethicists have wrestled over the ethical quandaries associated with medical research conducted on animals for decades.
Here’s a solution: Instead of lab mice, let’s use pets.
Take a deep breath, it’s not what you think. It’s actually the opposite.
Scientists at the University of California at Davis published an op-ed in the Journal of Translational Medicine today suggesting that Fido and Fluffy represent an underused resource for medical researchers.
Each year in the United States, about 26 million animals are used in biomedical research. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, approximately half of the 118 million U.S. households in 2011 had at least one pet, and two thirds of those visited the vet at least once in the previous year. That’s roughly 44 million animals already in a clinical setting each year.
So, the scientists ask, why not study and compare outcomes in animals in this environment, instead of breeding lab animals and introducing illness?
It’s a win-win for scientists and animal lovers, says Dori L. Borjesson, Ph.D., a professor of pathology, microbiology, and immunology at U.C. Davis and one of the paper’s authors.
Use Vet’s Office as a Lab
The growing sophistication of veterinary science and treatment has created essentially a parallel health system to our own.
Pets frequently experience the same types of injuries and diseases as humans, such as cancer or spinal cord injuries. Many pet owners seek out specialists such as veterinary ophthalmologists or neurologists when their animals become ill.
In this age of the pampered pet, veterinarians can even refer their furry clients to clinical trials, just like physicians do with human patients.
“Disease in dogs and cats mimic diseases in humans in many ways. Our animals have long lives and are genetically diverse. These models work better than mice in many ways,” Borjesson told Healthline. “We’re scientists and we know that a turtle is not a mouse is not a person is not a dog, but we look for useful commonalities.”
The scientists offer Davis’ One Health Institute as a model for this kind of physician-veterinarian collaboration.
The institute is a kind of interspecies research and teaching hospital, where companion animals with naturally occurring diseases can access next-generation drug trials and physicians can evaluate potential for use in people.
For pet owners, the chance to access cutting edge interventions for their beloved animals is often the last, best hope.
“They are lining up to get into trials,” Borjesson said. “It’s like the Mayo Clinic or Sloan Kettering. When you go there you expect to get the very best specialists and treatment possible.”
“We’re not doing this on animals we can cure otherwise,” she added.
Limitations on Usefulness
The model is not perfect, of course.
Researchers cannot learn everything about a treatment because the animals are not euthanized as they often are in a laboratory setting for internal examination. But that’s also the upside, Borjesson said.
“It has broad public appeal. People consider their pets part of the family,” she said.
And there are failures, as in all research.
“Sometimes we find a treatment that works great in dogs and is useless in humans,” Borjesson said.
She said a recent pet trial funded by the National Institutes of Health tested the safety of a drug for the autoimmune skin condition pemphigus. The study has shown efficacy in dogs.