Sat, Nov 10, 2012 - Page 9 News List

How surgery for pets can benefit humans

Many devoted pet owners are happy to spend thousands on brain surgery for their cats and dogs — and these operations may help save human lives, too

By Jon Henley  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Some very respected human medics are already persuaded of the possible benefits of a more integrated — or at least a more collaborative — approach. Niessen works with James Shaw, professor of regenerative medicine for diabetes at the University of Newcastle. He says doctor-vet collaboration is “only touching the surface at the moment” and could potentially prove “really very exciting.”

Shaw says regenerative medicine — cell and tissue transplantation, gene therapy — in pets holds enormous promise, both in the benefits it can offer patients and in the development of therapies that may also work with humans.

Rodents are not so helpful.

“What we see in mice isn’t necessarily the same as what we see in humans,” he says.

Cats and dogs, on the other hand, look “much more like human patients. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the diseases are very similar. And whereas regulations are just as stringent as for a regenerative medicine trial on a person, with companion animals it’s more acceptable, simply because the risk-benefit is different,” he says.

Not that this is “a cheap and cheerful way of doing animal testing,” he adds. “You’re talking about real utility and benefit to an animal with a relatively short life who is unwell — just like a human. The benefits to these animals will be there, clinically.”

Hopefully, they will be for Harry. Kenny, the neurosurgeon, is now well into his operation, working with fierce precision, aided by a computer monitor displaying data and images from a prior CT scan of Harry’s brain. Niessen, manning the IV lines, is “the hormone man.”

“We’re removing a tumor from an essential gland here. Harry will need cortisone infused, his glucose levels could be an issue, salt and water will be really important ... The potential for the patient to become unstable is very high,” he says.

For most of the owners whose animals are treated here, “one medicine” means little. They are simply devoted to their pets and want them to get better.

Nigel and Ros Gale from Whitstable have brought their seven-year-old German shepherd for a checkup after surgery six weeks ago; Max has a serious immune-system disorder.

“There’s no cure,” Nigel says. “It’s about maintenance now.”

The couple are uninsured and have spent £6,000 on their dog since he first fell ill.

“But what is the alternative?” Nigel asks. “I certainly don’t see one.”

Darren and Margaret Mangan from Uxbridge feel the same about Charlie, a three-year-old springer spaniel. Charlie very nearly died earlier this year.

“Bleeding from his spinal cord, lost the use of back legs,” Darren says. “Platelet count was at zero. Blood oozing from every orifice. He was put on steroids and they did his immune system in. Attacked his prostate, liver, kidneys.”

After two weeks at the QMHA — and a bill of £5,500 — Charlie is now pretty much himself again. The Mangans, thankfully, were insured (“Best £12 a month I ever spent,” Darren says).

However, “even if we hadn’t been, you’d have to have paid. I can’t understand people who don’t. He’s just such a lovely fellow. Our best mate. You couldn’t ever get rid of him,” he says.

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