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CU and CSU researchers collaborate using natural animal models

Milton the dog
Milton, a natural animal model, participated in a study.
Spring 2018

by Wendy S. Meyer
In 2012, the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CCTSI) formally invited Colorado State University (CSU) to become an official Institute partner. CCTSI Director Ron Sokol, MD, says that the CCTSI is one of only a handful of the 58 NIH-funded CTSA Hubs across the nation that includes veterinary researchers—and translation to natural animal models—in its spectrum of translational research. Since 2012, the collaboration between human and animal biomedical researchers has thrived.

 “The Veterinary School at CSU is one of the best in the nation,” says Sokol. “And the researchers there--leaders in One Health and exploring biological mechanisms in natural animal models of human diseases--have been creating investigational collaborations with the biomedical researchers on the Anschutz Medical Campus.”

CCTSI has awarded pilot grants to promising CSU investigators and CU-CSU collaborations. “The applications for the CU-CSU Collaboration Pilot Grant Award were extremely strong this year,” says Tom Campbell, MD, co-leader of the program. “Their scores were some of the best I have seen since I’ve been leading this program, and we are excited to see their work progress.”

Two of those recipients are Melanie Joy, PharmD, PhD, associate professor, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences from CU Anschutz, and Geoff Heffner, DVM, assistant professor, Small Animal Emergency and Critical Care from the Vet school at CSU. Their project, Medical Device for Kidney Disease Indication: from Canines to Humans, aims to determine the safety and efficacy of a medical device used in conjunction with hemodialysis. The device was developed by Dr. Joy and a colleague from North Carolina State University (Marian McCord, PhD). 

Joy said the first study she did with animals was two years ago, using canines without kidney disease. The goal was to make certain the device was safe. “We tested healthy canines, and those studies led us to progress to canines with kidney disease. Those studies also led to the adoption of a new member to my family,” Joy said. (After the study, she decided to adopt Milton, one of the healthy natural animal model participants. See photo above.)  Joy continued, “Dogs with kidney disease requiring hemodialysis is really the clinical model. The subjects in the upcoming study will actually be family pets. Their owners will want to dialyze those dogs to see if they can recover some kidney function, and we are incorporating the new medical device to see if it does better than dialysis alone.”

“Our hope will be to use the data in dogs to help with direct application for people,” says Heffner. “And we hope to eventually take the device to market for use in human and veterinary populations.”

Tracy Webb, DVM, PhD, at CSU, is helping to facilitate these human and animal research collaborations.  Webb, whose advanced clinical training is in emergency and critical care, also serves as coordinator of the CSU Clinical Review Board for veterinary clinical trials regulatory review, and has research expertise in immunology and stem cell methods.  She currently leads CSU-CCTSI activities around natural animal models, and believes researchers in human disease should be interested in pursuing research with natural animal models because of the many challenges in applying rodent models to human medicine. 

“With natural animal models like dogs, cats or horses, the idea is that they are spontaneous disease models, which can strengthen the research,” Webb says. Researchers in the CU Cancer Center and the CU Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine seem to agree. Both centers have investigators who are conducting research in natural animal models, including dogs, horses and sheep.

Heffner says that veterinary medicine is always evolving and people want their pets to have the opportunity to receive cutting-edge medical therapies and technologies. Enrolling pets in these studies advances treatments that might eventually be available to humans.

“A lot of the therapies we do [at CSU] eventually go on to be used in people and have pioneered human medicine,” Heffner says. 

Going forward, CSU may even be a stronger research partner as it is in the process of completing a $65 million state-of-the-art research facility called the C. Wayne McIlwraith Translational Institute​. It is slated to open late fall 2018 and will afford even more opportunities for rigorous translational research collaboration.  

“There are a significant number of diseases where there is a potential to collaborate,” says Webb. “It gives you a good feeling that you are using models that would benefit from what you are doing in addition to advancing human medicine.” 

Sue VandeWoude, DVM, Associate Dean for Research in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at CSU, and PI of the CSU CCTSI sub-award, is very excited about progress being made in the “T.05” research space. “Participation in CCTSI as a true partner has provided excellent opportunities for our veterinary clinical faculty interested in pursuing research.  CCTSI has been a pioneer in this area, which is now gaining traction nationally, providing opportunities for veterinary-medical doctor collaborations across the country,” VandeWoude says.

For more information about how to find a researcher at CSU who may want to collaborate with investigators at CU Anschutz, contact or​.  

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