Today, the United States and other countries around the world are celebrating Father’s Day. In recognition of all the men (fathers and nonfathers alike) in our lives, we have compiled a list of the four biggest health risks for men and the many ways animal research is helping men live longer and healthier lives.
Cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease, heart attack, irregular heartbeat, heart failure, etc.) is the number one killer for men. On average, one in four men die from heart disease. A few of the highest risk factors are: smoking, obesity, family history, high LDL (“bad” cholesterol), diabetes, overweight/obesity, and physical inactivity.
When left untreated or in severe cases, cardiovascular disease can result in many complications, sometimes requiring more serious measures such as heart transplants or valve replacements. Artificial or animal heart valves are used to replace natural valves when there is a serious defect. The most common replacement valves are mechanical or heart valves from pigs and cows. Before the discovery that animal valves work well as replacement valves for humans, surgeon Albert Starr partnered with one of his friends, Lowell Edwards, an engineer, and together the two designed a ball and cage valve that was similar in structure to human valves. This was first tested with dogs but the valve was flawed because patients had to be diligent about taking blood thinners every day to prevent blood clots. The discovery that animal valves were a viable replacement solved this problem. Alain Carpenter, a French surgeon, realized that animal valves could be used to replace defective human heart valves. He began treating pig valves with medication to reduce the risk of human rejection. 106,000 heart valves are replaced each year and animal valves are one of the most common options.
Not all heart disease requires surgery, especially when risk factors are eliminated. Most of the medications used to treat heart disease were initially tested on animals, including Crestor and Zetia, which treat high LDL. LDL in the blood stream leaves behind fatty deposits that narrow the blood vessels and can cause serious damage to the heart. Dr. Akira Endo identified the enzyme causing LDL and created a medication that blocked production. He tested the medication in dogs, rabbits, and monkeys. Once he found an effective dose, the trial went on to humans. Half of men ages 65 to 74 take cholesterol medication and it is a staple in preventing heart attacks. Pet dogs also receive cholesterol medication, thanks to this research.
As mentioned above, diabetes is one of the highest risk factors for heart disease. There are two types of diabetes, and both are becoming more prevalent. In type 1 diabetes the body destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. In type 2 the body’s cells don’t adequately use insulin, 90-95% of diabetes in adults is type 2. Risk factors include: obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, and unhealthy cholesterol levels.
When it comes to animal research and diabetes, there has been a lot of progress since the development of insulin in 1921. Gene therapy has cured type 1 diabetes in dogs and mice have helped discover a type of diabetes that occurs in the elderly and generally goes undiagnosed. Animal research played a significant part in the development of implantable devices which helps people with diabetes manage their condition. These devices act as an artificial pancreas, one monitors blood sugar and administers insulin as needed; the other is a capsule of insulin-producing cells implanted under the skin where the cells multiply, removing the need for blood tests and insulin injections. These devices are especially useful for children who can’t administer their own insulin and those who are unable to manage the condition due to age or other circumstances.
Skin cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in men each year. Men have a slightly higher risk than women because, on average, they spend more time outdoors and are less likely to wear sunscreen. Dermatologists advise that everyone perform a self-check of their skin each month. Look for new or larger growths and anything else unusual and speak to a physician about any concerns.
In 2015, scientists discovered that a modified herpes virus was helping battle skin cancer. The researchers removed two key genes from the virus to prevent the spread of herpes to healthy cells, allowing it to target the cancerous cells and triggering an immune response in the body. The treatment was initially tested on mice with positive results and progressed to clinical trials on humans. Researchers indicated that the modified herpes virus could act as a first line of treatment because the drug was more effective in those with smaller tumors who hadn’t yet received other treatments.
In early 2018 researchers at University of California, San Diego experienced a breakthrough in testing a new skin cancer treatment. The researchers are using bacteria found on human skin called 6-HAP to interfere with noncancerous DNA and so far, it has stopped skin cancer tumors in mice. 6-HAP could work as a preventative measure against skin cancer because it inhibits the growth of tumors. As they continue their research, the scientists hope to delve further into how 6-HAP prevents cancer and how other bacteria could play a role in further prevention discoveries.
Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men. It’s slow-growing and generally develops in older men, with one in six cases diagnosed in men age 65 or older. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 165,000 people will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2018.
The good news is that there have been many advancements in prostate cancer treatment and research. Recently, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco have made a groundbreaking discovery. They found that there is a strain of protein produced by the human body that cancer has become addicted to. The scientists’ goal was to restore the high rate of the protein’s development, causing cellular stress which triggered the cancer cell death. Mice with aggressive prostate tumor tissue saw dramatic tumor shrinkage, whereas mice with less aggressive prostate tumor tissue saw a slowdown in tumor growth.
It’s not only cancer drugs that are being tested. The National Cancer Institute has a database of complementary and alternative medicines that have been tested for efficacy on animals. Mice given calcium have shown a decrease in tumors and rodents given pomegranate juice saw a similar tumor decrease.
Researchers at various institutions such as Colorado State University and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University have been looking at naturally occurring canine cancers and using clinical trials with both children and dogs to test treatments. As we gain understanding of how various cancers develop in dogs, not only is animal research helping the four-legged members of our families, but it is also moving the two-legged variety closer to a cure for prostate and skin cancers.
Animal research has played an important role in treating and preventing these diseases and many others. Animal models are continuing to help researchers find cures and effective treatments for the numerous health issues men face. As we look to celebrate the men in our lives we should consider the many ways in which their health and well-being have been improved through animal research.
By Lauren Gustafson