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Animals can help us combat human diseases

Medical science is more advanced than ever, but humans are still subject to a range of health concerns. Animal DNA may hold the secret to curing the incurable.

Sep 9, 2019 |
5 min read

In many respects, there has never been a better time to be alive than right now – in terms of health, at least. The human race is living longer than ever, as medical science finds new and unique ways to beat the diseases that were so damaging to our ancestors.

We’re far from immortal though, and an aging population brings its own challenges. Our bones are starting to creak, and the rate of osteoarthritis diagnoses in human knees has doubled in the last fifty years. Heart disease is a constant threat in the west, too. It’s responsible for one in four deaths in the USA alone.

Maybe we need to go back to basics and think outside the box. Take a look at the animal kingdom, for example. There are a number of animals that could actually aid medical science thanks to their immunity to particular conditions.

This, of course, raises philosophical and moral questions. Should we really tamper with human DNA in order to combat disease, or should we allow nature to take its course? There’s also the ethical conundrum of using animals as research projects. With so many species already endangered, using living tissue from animals should be a strict no-no.

In the spirit of science, however, let’s take a look at five animals that may hold the key to curing human ailments. We’re a long way from this becoming a realistic treatment option, but if nothing else, it may encourage us to treat our furry- and four-legged brethren a little better.

Kangaroos and osteoarthritis

Arthritis in the bones is nothing new, and it’s not a problem that exclusively plagues humans. Primates and other animals also tend to subject their bodies to wear and tear, most often due to questionable posture.

Over time, joints become misaligned, and collagen is worn away. This leads to the pain that we associate with arthritis, as bones grind together without any kind of padding.

One animal that experiences no such issue is the kangaroo – at least, not until these are animals are well into their dotage. This is surprising, as kangaroos arguably place more stress upon their knees than any other species. Their entire approach to movement, lest we forget, involves leaping and landing on the ground, moving at speeds as fast as 40 mph.

The reason Skippy manages to stay healthy is due to a unique shape and design of a kangaroo’s knees, which can absorb impact without damage. This could pave the way for ‘bionic’ knees in the future, and change the face of transplant surgery.

Chimpanzees and heart disease

Regardless of your religious or scientific viewpoint, one fact is indisputable. Primates – most notably bonobos and chimpanzees – are the wild animals whose genetic make-up bears the closest resemblance to our own. This means that we could learn a lot from these animals – like how to avoid heart disease.

We are eating more and more foods that are damaging to our heart health, most notably red meat. Chimps primarily subside on fruit and leaves, setting a fine example for our vegan brethren. It’s not entirely our culinary choices that are to blame for the rise in heart disease, though. Over time, humanity has lost access to a particular gene that promotes heart health.

The gene in question is referred to as CMP-N-acetylneuraminic acid hydroxylase. Try saying that five times quickly.

This gene is still found in chimpanzees, which explains why these animals are considerably less prone to cardiac episodes. Other animals still have the gene, and experiments on mice to closer replicate human biology resulted in a doubled risk of heart failure.

It seems that, unless we start to learn from our primate cousins, chimps may outlive us all. Who knew that Planet of the Apes was a prescient documentary all along?

Cavefish and diabetes

Diagnoses of diabetes are undoubtedly on the rise. In excess of 30 million Americans are now believed to be living with the condition, which can have a seriously detrimental impact on long-term health. Blindness, organ failure, and even the amputation of limbs are all potential side effects of this illness.

As we know, diabetes is a result of high levels of sugar in the blood. Blood sugar is critical to human beings to survive, though. The same cannot be said of the Mexican blind cavefish. This aquatic animal lives without the need to regulate blood sugar. This means that spikes and falls do not place this fish in danger.

The upshot is that the Mexican blind cavefish can binge on as many algae as it wishes, without jeopardizing health. That particular diet may not appeal to diabetic humans, but it’s a step in the right direction. By studying the unique physiology of this fish, new answers into the prevention and treatment of diabetes may be uncovered.

Zebras and ulcers

Pop quiz – when was the last time that you saw a zebra and thought, “whoa, the poor thing looks stressed?”

Maybe that’s a cheap question to ask. Zebras are not a commonplace sight for many of us. Unless you have a degree in equine psychology, you may not recognize stress symptoms anyway. Within this mind, take the word of an expert – zebras do not experience stomach ulcers though stress.

This is because the lifestyle of a zebra is considerably more sedate than humans. Yes, they’ll experience sensations of high anxiety. This will typically be when looking for a food or water source, or when the menacing silhouette of a lion appears on the horizon. For the remainder of their day, however, the humble zebra lives a life of zen.

This is arguably more of a mental lesson than physical learning. Essentially, we should all try to Be More Zebra and bring a little less stress into our lives. Failing to do so leaves us at risk of developing stomach ulcers – or worse. If we’re exposed to prolonged periods of stress, our gut turns against us and leaves us vulnerable to autoimmune disorders.

Naked mole-rats and cancer

Of all the animals in the world, the naked mole-rat is one that most humans would avoid contact with.

Rats are very few people’s cup of tea anyway, and this breed is particularly unsightly. As the name suggests, the naked mole-rat is devoid of fur. It resembles a particularly unappealing piece of skinned poultry from a butcher’s window.

However, the naked mole-rat is a hardy critter. These animals are virtually impervious to pain. Perhaps more importantly, they are completely immune to cancer. This is something that scientists are increasingly keen to investigate. Eventually, the naked mole rabbit will surely lead us to a medical breakthrough.

This immunity may explain the naked mole rat’s ability to survive. Measuring just 13cm in size and weighing as little as 35g, these rodents are typically expected to live a mere four years. Many naked mole-rats survive to the ripe old age of 30, though. Surely their immunity to disease plays a role in this, and it’s something that we can learn from.

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