Health and Healing for All: North Carolina State University Helps Bridge the Gap Between Animal and Human Medicine
From California sea lions, to horses, to treasured feline and canine family members, the North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, or CVM, works tirelessly to maintain the health and wellness of animals, and to search for new and better ways to diagnose, treat and cure diseases and injury.
Ranked third in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, NCSU’s veterinary college isn’t just dedicated to keeping animals healthy. It’s at the forefront of cutting edge research and innovation in the veterinary field, and is committed to using every available resource to help bridge the gap between human and animal medicine, through a concept called One Health.
One Health is based on the philosophy that humans, animals and the environment are all interconnected, and an integrated approach to understanding all three is the best way to promote the health of each.
The CVM has state-of-the-art facilities, which offer many things you’d more likely expect to see at a human hospital. Pet lovers from all over the country can—and frequently do--bring their animal family members for MRIs, CT scans, oncology treatments, cataract surgery, heart surgery, knee or hip replacement surgery, or consultations with some of the country’s best behaviorists and nutritionists. The CVM has the country’s only university-led canine bone marrow transplant program, and is a leader in prosthetic limb research.
The researchers, veterinarians and students at the NCSU CVM truly have a passion for animals. But the care they give has another, more complex purpose – one that takes a long, broad view of medicine, and has a keen eye on how finding new treatments for animals can improve human health.
Dr. Matthew Breen, professor of genomics in the NCSU CVM’s Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences and member of its Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research, studies the genetic components of diseases like cancer in animals and people, and he’s excited about the direction the One Health philosophy is taking modern medicine.
“We live in incredible times, from a medical standpoint,” Dr. Breen notes. “In this high-tech era, we have opportunities we’ve never had before to find real solutions to health problems experienced by many different species.”
One Health incorporates comparative medicine, which is about finding commonalities between animals and humans – whether genetic, behavioral, or environmental – and using those shared traits to find universal solutions to health problems. In particular, studying the areas where human and animal physiologies overlap allows scientists like Dr. Breen to more clearly define where problems such as genetic defects, allergies, and even cancers originate, and how they can best be resolved across species lines.
“Traditionally, human doctors have treated one species, while veterinarians treat all the other ones,” notes Dr. Breen. "Increasingly, research is showing that the genetics of diseases in people and animals have an incredibly high level of similarity. For example, when it comes to bladder cancer, whether the patient is a California sea lion, a dog, or a human, some of the aberrant genes are exactly the same in all three species. If we can find treatment for one, we may find treatment for all.”
It takes many hands to provide a truly integrated approach to health. In the One Health initiative, researchers from all over the world and from many different disciplines come together to collaborate and share their knowledge.
The collaboration within North Carolina State University is nothing short of amazing. The engineering college helps to design functional prosthetic limbs. The textile college assists with development of replacement tissue for burn treatments. The Agricultural Life Sciences Department researches environmental threats from disease. And all of these disciplines have very real implications for human health.
Some of the most significant collaborations don’t come from scientists, but from everyday pet lovers. Any time someone brings in a cat or dog for treatment at the CVM, the possibility for finding a cure for human disease, as well and animal disease, increases. And sometimes, as Dr. Breen can attest to, pet owners show the ultimate selflessness and generosity in the name of science.
“Every week we are contacted by very distressed people who are about to lose their dog, or have just lost their dog to cancer. Dogs are not just pets, they are a precious, beloved family member. And yet, in spite of the emotional trauma, people have the courage to ask their vet to send us samples of their dogs' tumors. We cannot help that particular dog, but there is great sense of comfort for people in knowing that their own dog’s legacy will be to help us to develop new information so that in the future another family may not have to suffer the same loss. Their generosity of spirit and contribution to cancer research is immeasurable.”
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