UC San Diego Center Aims To Improve Both Human And Animal Health

Thursday, February 13, 2014
By Kenny Goldberg

At a clinic in Sorrento Valley, a patient waits for her kidney dialysis treatment.

Lucy, who doesn’t want us to use her last name, suddenly lost her appetite a few weeks ago, and had difficulty urinating. A blood test revealed her kidneys were failing.

Lucy is only 3 years old. She’s a German Shepherd mix.

Nephrologist Sheri Ross said it’s not clear why Lucy got sick.

“We think it may be due to an infection, which — because it was an acute episode — hopefully she’ll recover, and that’s why we’re dialyzing her, in hopes to give her body a chance to heal itself,”Ross said.

Animals that suffer from sudden kidney failure often recover quickly. Ross said we can learn something from that.

“We can look at how long it takes the kidney to recover from certain injuries, and what the process is when they do recover," she explained. "So, if a human has the same problem with a drug or a toxin, we can look at that as far as recovery goes.”

The idea of using animals to improve the understanding of human health has been around for a long time.

In fact, critics have objected to using animals for research that only benefits humans.

But UC San Diego’s new Center for Veterinary Sciences and Comparative Medicine has a different approach.

It’s exploring whether interdisciplinary biomedical research can lead to advances in both human and animal health.

The center includes the Sorrento Valley clinic and labs on the UC San Diego campus.

Director Dr. Peter Ernst, calls the strategy One Health.

“The idea is to bring your collective expertise and perspective to a problem, and as the problems are usually relevant for more than one species, then solutions are developed or translated to their respective species more quickly,” Ernst said.

There’s also a need to understand how an increasing number of diseases are jumping from animals to people. These include HIV, SARS, and West Nile virus.

Ernst said investigating how to curb the spread of infectious diseases is especially important.

“You could imagine trying to create vaccines for humans, but if you immunize animals, for example, you can block the transmission from animals to humans by protecting the animals," he said.

"So that’s an example of One Health, where you can enhance the health of both species.”

Christina Sigurdson is the center’s co-director. She’s researching a family of fatal neurodegenerative diseases that affect both animals and humans.

Sigurdson said the conditions are caused by misshapen proteins.

“So that when the cell that’s normally supposed to make a protein like this, in an alpha-helical form, the protein can become misfolded or misshapen, into a form that instead looks like this. And these proteins then begin to stack on top of each other forming these aggregated large-clump structures.”

Sigurdson explained the build up of proteins causes organ dysfunction and severe disease, often leading to death.

“They’ve caused mad cow disease in the U.K. We have a similar disease in the United States called chronic wasting disease that occurs in our deer population," she said. "So in some areas of Colorado, there are around a third of the deer that are infected with chronic wasting disease.”

Sigurdson said sick deer could potentially infect scavengers, predators and even hunters. Sigurdson and her colleagues at the center don’t make animals sick and then try to cure them. They’re focused on studying naturally occurring conditions.

Like heart disease.

Ten-year-old Clyde suffers from a thickening of the heart muscle known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

It’s the most common type of heart disease among cats. It also affects about 1 out of every 500 people.

As Dr. Joao Orvalho performed a 3D scan of Clyde's heart, he said research into how the disease progresses in cats could shed some light on how it affects humans.

“So, we just need to a certain degree to take advantage of the patients that we have with this disease, and try to potentially extrapolate for the patients in human medicine," Orvalho said.

Ernst said he hopes the center’s unique focus on cross-species health will entice young veterinarians and medical researchers.

“We’re very excited about the opportunities that we think we can provide here that haven’t been available in the state of California," he said.