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A new high-tech imaging center for furry patients could ultimately benefit human patients.
"Baybi," a 3-year-old Shih Tzu, came to Johns Hopkins to have an MRI of her thoraco-lumbar spine. She was diagnosed with intervertebral disc disease.
“If an animal has a spontaneous disease, they often have the same confounding factors that humans do,” says Kraitchman.
This could make them a better model for how a therapy will work in similarly complicated humans.
When Rebecca Krimins tells new acquaintances about her job, she sometimes has to repeat herself a few times. “People don’t believe I’m at Hopkins and working on animals,” says the veterinary anesthesiologist. “I have to tell them two or three times.”
The confusion is understandable: Associated for 126 years with top-flight human medicine, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine ventured less than two years ago into veterinary care. In doing so, those involved in the new program aim to advance care not only for pets, but ultimately for people.
Johns Hopkins’ Center for Image-Guided Animal Therapy began in fall 2013 as a place where local veterinarians could send animals in need of advanced imaging procedures. Dara Kraitchman, a radiologist and veterinarian, started the program partly out of a desire to extend the benefits of medical advances to furry patients. Veterinary offices generally lack expensive MRI and CT machines; some hospitals allow after-hours pet imaging, but the school of medicine’s research-dedicated facilities are the most powerful available to vets in the Baltimore/Washington area, Kraitchman says. These facilities, located in the basement of a building on the edge of the medical campus, are different from the clinical facilities in The Johns Hopkins Hospital but have similar levels of state-of-the-art, advanced imaging equipment.
In practical terms, access to more powerful imaging often means diagnosing or treating a pet without invasive procedures. For example, Kraitchman can use MRI, CT and/or ultrasound to locate a mass precisely enough to collect a biopsy sample with an inserted needle, with no need to make a large incision and find the mass visually. She and her colleagues also use imaging to guide certain minimally invasive surgical procedures, such as inserting stents and freezing away problematic tissue.
But the center’s assets go beyond top machinery and Kraitchman’s expertise. When Krimins came on board last September, she became the only veterinary anesthesiologist in all of Maryland. “Most of our patients are very sick, so it’s best to have a specialist do the anesthesia,” she explains.
Owners can’t bring their pets directly to the center; rather, Kraitchman and Krimins work with area veterinarians, including specialists, to identify animals that could benefit from the center’s services. “We’re looking not to compete but partner with specialists around us,” Kraitchman says.
Kraitchman’s ambitions for the center go beyond improving veterinary care locally. Since 1999, she has been helping to develop new interventional cardiology and radiology procedures at the school of medicine, and she saw the potential to “give something back” to the veterinary profession, she says. In addition to developing protocols that translate advanced imaging procedures from people to pets, she wants the center to carry out studies needed to get new drugs and devices to market.
Such studies could ultimately benefit human and veterinary patients. “We have a lot of things that look promising in animal studies, and then 70 percent or more fail to make it through to a commercial product,” Kraitchman says. Part of the reason for that, she suggests, is that lab animals with artificially induced disease may be a flawed model of human disease. But “if an animal has spontaneous disease—obesity, for example—they often have the same confounding factors humans do,” such as diabetes or high cholesterol. This could make them a better model for how a therapy will work in similarly complicated humans.
Doing preclinical trials in veterinary patients would also cost less than using lab animals, Kraitchman says, because researchers wouldn’t bear the costs of housing the animals. It would give owners of sick pets earlier access to promising therapies. And it would cut back on the need for laboratory animals.
The center is beginning a study to test whether imaging can detect impending heart failure in dogs predisposed to the condition so they can be treated accordingly. And soon, they hope to launch a trial of a long-acting pain medication, a project Krimins finds particularly exciting. “It’s very rewarding when I can help patients live a pain-free lifestyle,” she says.