Physicians and veterinarians to share perspectives

“Zoobiquity” conference aims to bridge medical divide

January 7, 2011 (published)
By Edie Lau

While visiting the Los Angeles Zoo to lend her expertise in cardiac ultrasound imaging, Dr. Barbara Natterson, MD, realized a profound truth about medicine: Humans and other animals experience the same diseases.

As Natterson, a cardiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), learned about heart conditions in primates and other animals at the zoo, she was surprised by how similar the pathologies were to human disease.

“Now, many years later, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, because it was pretty ignorant,” Natterson said. “I did not know that there was this parallel world of very similar diagnoses and pathology. And I was unaware, at that point, of the tremendous overlap in veterinary and medical education during the core years and in post-graduate programs.”

The thing is, she is not unusual among physicians, Natterson said: “Where I was then is pretty representative of where MDs are now when it comes to an awareness of veterinary practice.” The two fields rarely intersect professionally, operating as if in separate silos, she lamented. “Most MDs will go their entire professional careers and never engage professionally with a vet,” she said.

Natterson and like-minded doctors from the human and veterinary worlds aim to change that. As a start, they’ve organized a gathering on Jan. 29 in Los Angeles to bring together veterinarians and physicians to share ideas and expertise on diseases that occur across species.

Jointly presented by the UCLA School of Medicine, the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine and the Los Angeles Zoo, the conference at UCLA Medical Center’s Tamkin Auditorium is dubbed “Zoobiquity,” a coined term that combines words from two cultures: The Greek zo- for animal, and the Latin ubiquite, for everywhere.

Similarly, conference organizers aspire to unite the cultures of human medicine and veterinary medicine.

The first step is for individuals from each profession to get to know one another personally, Natterson said. The act of simply organizing the conference got that process rolling.

As she brought together experts over the telephone to plan presentations for the gathering, Natterson observed with delight how readily they connected, such as happened with a veterinary and human neuro-oncologist.

“After just a couple of minutes of talking and introducing them, they started speaking in their own neuro-oncology language,” Natterson recounted. They found out they belong to the same professional societies, read the same journals and are even cited on some of the same papers. “It was clear they ‘hit it off,’ ” Natterson said. “I felt an important professional bridge had been built.”
The purpose of the meeting is to build many more such bridges. The first part of the program is built around presentations on diseases or conditions known to occur in humans and other animals. An MD will discuss a human case; a veterinarian, an animal case. The cases involve:

• Glioblastoma in a Rhodesian ridgeback and a high school principal
• Obsessive-compulsive disorder in a bull terrier and a Hollywood agent
• Tuberculosis in a golden retriever and a day laborer
• Separation anxiety in a shih tzu and a second-grade boy
• Lyme disease in a New Jersey horse and a summer-camp counselor

Afterward, participants will take a trip to the Los Angeles Zoo to hear about more cases of animals with “human” diseases: a lioness with cardiac tamponade; a rhinoceros with squamous-cell carcinoma; monkeys with diabetes syndromes; and a California condor with lead toxicity.

The idea that animals naturally experience the same diseases as people is likely less familiar to physicians than to veterinarians, Natterson said. “I really feel the vets understand this, and the conference is in some ways to open the eyes of the medical community and have them extend their hands,” she said.

But Dr. Stephen Ettinger, a veterinary internal medicine specialist and cardiologist with California Animal Hospital Veterinary Specialty Group in Los Angeles, said MDs are not alone in benefiting from broadened horizons.

“The bottom line is that there is no disease in human beings that doesn’t have a counterpart in veterinary medicine,” said Ettinger. “...Most veterinarians don’t think about it this way.”

Ettinger is one of more than two dozen faculty members slated to participate in the conference, for which continuing-education credits are available.

Advance registration fees range from $80 to $195. Owing to the field trip to the zoo, Natterson said the conference is limited to 183 people. As of this week, she said, limited space was still available.

In addition to bridging the cultures of human and veterinary medicine, the meeting is designed to span the distance between academia and clinical practice. “This isn’t your classic academic conference,” said Dr. Patricia Conrad, a professor of parasitology at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and a conference co-chair. “The clinical cases are fascinating and should be of interest to practicing veterinarians in all fields.”

Other participants include 10 veterinary students from UC Davis and 10 medical students from UCLA, who will be paired to collaborate in what is dubbed the Zoobiquity Research Initiative. Natterson said the goal is to have the teams produce research proposals that may be presented at what she hopes will be a second Zoobiquity meeting next year.

One of the students who successfully competed for the opportunity to attend is Sarah Reidenbach Lamborn, who is in her second year of veterinary school at UC Davis. The idea of melding the professions isn’t the least bit foreign to Lamborn: She hopes to pursue training in human medicine after she completes her DVM degree.

“If I could have my dream career, I’d treat children and animals,” Lamborn said.

Lamborn’s mentor is Dr. Cheryl Scott, an RN, nurse practitioner and DVM with a master’s degree in preventive veterinary medicine. Scott is program director of the Calvin Schwabe One Health Project at UC Davis, part of a global initiative to unite human and veterinary medicine to tackle problems of human, animal and environmental health.

To date, much of the international One Health effort has focused on emerging infectious and zoonotic disease. Scott said the approach of Zoobiquity, bringing together practitioners to share knowledge and thoughts on a variety of diseases common across species, is unusual.

“I can’t find anything that’s like it anywhere else,” said Scott, who — with Natterson and Conrad —  is co-chairing the event. “It’s going to be kind of a first for opening these discussions between us.”

Lamborn pronounced the effort “perfect,” and added: “It’s so overdue.”

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