Startup matches ailing pets and clinical trials that could help people

Ben Lewis was pursuing a dual degree in veterinary medicine and management from the University of Pennsylvania when he recognized a major problem in medical research: Millions of laboratory animals are sacrificed every year in trials of drugs that often end up not working very well in people. So last year he teamed up with his wife, Christina Lopes, to launch The One Health Company, which aims to recruit pet dogs and cats for trials of new therapies for diseases that are similar in animals and people.

"Rather than taking healthy animals and inducing disease, testing on them and then killing them at the end of the experiment, we locate pets across the country that are naturally sick and provide them treatment with potential life-saving human therapies that pharmaceutical companies are studying," Lewis explained in a recent interview with Mother Nature Network.

Pets and people share a susceptibility to many diseases, including diabetes, congestive heart failure and several cancers. The One Health movement, for which the new company is named, is a global effort to bring together veterinarians and scientists who are developing new treatments for these conditions, in the hopes that pets will offer more realistic models of disease than lab rodents typically can. Any products that come out of such collaborations, of course, would also be able to be used in veterinary practice.

Lewis' company operates on a crowdsourcing model. Pet owners who want to enroll their cat or dog in a clinical trial can sign up at the company's website. The One Health Company doesn't run clinical trials itself, but rather maintains a network of veterinary schools that operate clinical trials. Whenever a trial opens up that may be a good match for a pet owner in the database, that person is contacted.

There are 450,000 pets in the startup's database, but Lewis and Lopes tell Mother Nature Network they're aiming for millions more. They have already matched pets up with researchers studying ocular melanoma, transitional cell carcinoma and irritable bowel syndrome.

The concept of One Health is catching on in both academia and business. Zoetis ($ZTS) is one of the companies encouraging cross-species research collaborations. And Lewis' school, the University of Pennsylvania, has led several research projects aimed at helping both pets and people. In 2014, the veterinary school worked with Advaxis ($ADXS) to study an osteosarcoma drug in dogs with the disease. More recently, a team of veterinarians at Penn published a study showing that cats are a realistic naturally occurring model of the neurological disease Niemann-Pick type C (NPC)--and that a drug containing an ingredient found in the household product Febreze may be the key to slowing the disease. The biotech company Vtesse has now started a Phase 2b/3 study of the drug in people.

- read more at Mother Nature Network