Doctors and Vets Working Hand in Paw


            If a vaccine to treat melanoma in dogs isn’t amazing enough, veterinary oncologists working in tandem with their colleagues in human health have created a similar vaccine for people with melanoma.

            Hyperbaric therapy has been used for years for diabetic patients with wounds that refuse to heal or for deep sea divers with decompression sickness (commonly called the bends). In recent years hyperbaric chambers have been constructed for horses, and even more recently veterinarians are learning ways for dogs and cats to benefit, all a result of taking lessons from their counterparts in human medicine.

            It’s cutting edge veterinary medicine at its best that’s presented at the annual Forum of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. This year’s meeting, May 31 through June 3, at the Kentucky International Convention Center, Louisville. Boarded specialists in neurology, oncology, cardiology and large and small animal internal medicine offer the latest in cutting edge medicine to over 3,000 attending veterinary professionals from 29 countries.

            More than ever, medical doctors are working in tandem with veterinarians sharing resources and knowledge to benefit both people and animals.

            Human internal medicine specialist Dr. Jason Chesney, associate director for Translational Research at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville will discuss methods that have recently been successful in human medicine to treat cancers, and how they may apply to veterinary medicine.

            He’ll explain how a unique antibody therapy developed for women with breast cancer, called Herceptin, might be used for dogs, cats or horses with breast cancer. Chesney explains, “Herceptin binds to protein on breast cancer cells and induces the immune system to kill those bad cells. It’s a smart bomb to kill cancer.”

            Chesney also speaks at the Forum about the latest treatments for melanoma in people and translates them to possible applications in horses. “The good news is that in horses, the drug currently used to treat melanoma is inexpensive; the bad news is that it’s not particularly effective long-term. We’re now testing antibody treatments that would drive immunity against the cancer.”

            Dogs also get melanoma. Veterinary oncologist Dr. Philip Bergman, director of the Donaldson-Atwood Cancer Clinic at the American Medical Center Flaherty Comparative Oncology Lab in New York City, NY says a new vaccine to treat canines with melanoma is expected to be available soon. The vaccine will be the first of its kind commercially available for human or animal medicine.  "When cancers occur, our immune system does not see them as foreign,” explains Bergman. “To wake up the immune system, the vaccine is made of DNA that comes from a different species. That DNA effectively wakes up the immune system, which is why we are giving human DNA as a vaccine to dogs with melanoma"

            Bergman is partnering with human oncologists at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City who have developed a similar DNA-based vaccine for people (using DNA from mice). “We share data and really do work together,” Bergman says.

            Historically most human medical research has been conducted on mice, particularly cancer research. “It’s artificial because you’re inducing mice with the cancer, which is different than naturally occurring cancers,” explains Bergman. “By using dogs who really have cancer, we obviously don’t need to involve other species, and the work and the results are real life. And as a result, we help dogs.”

            Veterinarians can actually often complete research more expediently than in human medicine because the approval processes for new drugs and treatments aren’t as intense or laborious. For example, the melanoma vaccine already proved safe for dogs, just as testing began on people. Had it proven unsafe for dogs, it likely would never have been tried on people. Of course, human medicine tends to have more monetary backing, while money for veterinary research is generally more difficult to eek out. Sharing all this knowledge, data and dollars is a windfall for veterinarians and human physicians as well.

            Approval for the DNA-based melanoma vaccine to be used for people appears to be inevitable, though it will take more time.

            Meanwhile, the Animal Medical Center and Sloan-Kettering are now working on a similar-type DNA-based vaccine to treat lymphoma in both dogs and in people.

            Veterinarians are also always looking for ways to apply new and even long-standing techniques used in human medicine. Physiologist Paul Sheffield with the Nix Wound Care & Hyperbaric Center in San Antonio, TX will speak at the Forum on the benefits of hyperbaric therapy in people. “People with wounds that won’t heal because of diabetes or radiation treatments don’t have enough molecular oxygen in their cells,” he explains. “The patients (placed inside a room or chamber) are given pure oxygen. For years, since the 1890’s, hyperbaric therapy has helped divers to recover from the bends.”

            Veterinary medicine first applied hyperbaric medicine to horses at the renowned Hagyard Equine Medical Institute’s McGee Critical Care and Medical Center in Lexington, KY. Large animal internal medicine specialist Dr. Nathan Slovis will explain the most successful and also what turned out to be the least successful uses for hyperbaric therapy in his equine patients. It’s worked the best to help heal severe bone infections, traumatic leg injuries, and post surgical gastro-intestinal and colic complications. Hyperbaric therapy has been less successful in treating pneumonia.

            Slovis says he has no doubts that hyperbaric therapy would be used more often in human medicine if it wasn’t for insurance carriers closing their minds and collective check books; currently there 13 current approved uses but there could be many more. “It would save all of us money in the long run,” he says.

            Slovis concedes hyperbaric therapy isn’t necessarily a miracle cure, depending on what it’s used for, he says about half or more of the horses can be saved – but then without treatment the overwhelming majority of those same horses would die.

            Still, it’s a matter of economics. Treatments may cost around $6,000 per horse – not likely affordable for one cat or dog by most pet owners. That’s gradually changing as more affordable options are also popping up for dogs and cats.

            Increasingly, any medical treatment available for people is being applied to animals. And increasingly, human researchers are partnering with veterinarians. The results benefit both people and animals.