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Medicine Goes to the Dogs

Pampered pets provide loopholes for biomedical entrepreneurs.
February 19, 2004

There are people-you’ve met them-who love their pets far more than many parents love their children. Don’t mock them. Don’t pity them. Be grateful. Odds are their veterinarians will play a bigger role in saving your life-or the life of your sick child-than your own doctor.

Veterinarians for pampered pets will soon be in the vanguard of human health care, and the reason is regulatory. Controversial restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research and cloning effectively squelch efforts to bring these biotechnologies to bear on human therapies. The moral quandaries and bioethical concerns underlying these restrictions can’t be dismissed. But the different standards we apply to animals create provocative loopholes for the innovative and opportunistic biomedical entrepreneur.

Please follow the money. Legally, ethically, morally-and yes, even financially-pet lovers are superbly positioned to fund breakthrough biotechnology treatments and genetic therapies for their loved ones. Americans now spend $19 billion a year on veterinary care, up from $11 billion just seven years ago, according to a recent New Yorker article on pet care. That $19 billion figure approximates the research and development budget for the National Institutes of Health, which oversee public medical research funding in the United States. The rate of growth remains robust.

But even more significant than mere money is the rapidly increasing sophistication of veterinary care. Little more than 20 years ago, the New Yorker observed, all vets were general practitioners, and neutering and spaying were among the most elaborate procedures they performed. Today you can take your pet to a veterinary cardiologist, oncologist, radiologist, or ophthalmologist-indeed, the American Veterinary Medical Association now includes more than 7,000 such specialists.

My only objection to the New Yorker’s otherwise superb survey is that it didn’t go far enough. It ignored the additional benefits that canines and felines alike are likely to reap from the tremendous amounts of biotech-driven research currently under way.

A cat crippled by leukemia or a dog suffering from a degenerative autoimmune disease might indeed be a perfect candidate for embryonic-stem-cell therapy. Cloning tricks and techniques that might be inappropriate for people-Goodbye, Dolly-could well represent appropriately heroic intervention by a pet-driven biotech initiative. Yes, many people understandably blink at the thought of spending $10,000 to save a cherished pet. But market forces reveal that there are tens of thousands of pet lovers who don’t. All it would take is one Labrador-loving billionaire to create the veterinary counterpart to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-an enormously influential philanthropic funder of innovative biotech.

If veterinary biotech comes anywhere close to attaining its promise, patients with names like Rover, Fido, Spot, Buddy, and Cassandra will be the medical marvels that transform the legal, ethical, and regulatory marketplace for biotech innovations for their human masters and guardians. Technically, it is already clear that the human genome and the dog genome, for example, are remarkably similar. (About three-quarters of human genes have direct canine counterparts, according to a recent study funded by genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter’s Center for the Advancement of Genomics and the Institute for Genomic Research.) There is no way that gene therapy or stem cell therapy or cloning therapy for cats and dogs will not yield immediate and useful insights for human medical researchers.

The very effectiveness of veterinary biotech would subvert the regulatory and ethical underpinnings of human-research constraints. It’s almost impossible to imagine society saying, “It’s all right to use embryonic stem cells to save your dying dog, but it’s not okay to use them to save your dying child.” It’s impossible to imagine a president or a senator or the CEO of an HMO asserting that a controversial biotech therapy that puts a cat’s leukemia in remission must never be used to treat a sickly adolescent. Ain’t gonna happen.

The conclusion? America’s love affair with animals will slowly but inevitably undermine the religious, moral, and ethical arguments against genome-based therapies for people. Healthier cats and dogs will generate an irresistible demand for healthier children and adults. Wealthy pet lovers will be the essential instrument of innovation adoption that will drive the next generation of medical treatments. Tomorrow’s biotechnical health-care challenge will literally be going to the dogs. I mean that in a good way. So should the medical community.

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