Tapping animal evolution to solve common human diseases

Applying the Zoobiquity lens to a broad range of topics and animal models, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz leads research studies with teams of experts around the world. 

 

In their quest to uncover new insights into common human disorders, these collaborations pursue a species-spanning approach to conditions like heart failure, cataracts, eating disorders, breast cancer, ovulation and postpartum depression.

Female Health

Studying the pregnant giraffe as a natural animal model for resistance to high blood pressure in human pregnancy

Working with maternal-fetal physicians, veterinary pathologists and placenta specialists, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz seeks the mechanisms behind female giraffes’ resistance to the leading cause of death in pregnant women and their babies. Pregnant giraffes’ blood pressures routinely rise to 300/180 -- heights considered deadly for pregnant women -- yet the animals face zero complications. 

 

The project is a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program, UC San Diego School of Medicine, San Diego Zoo, UCLA Cardiac Arrhythmia Center, and Harvard University’s human evolutionary biology department. 

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Using dairy-farm milking methods to improve women’s milk production and reduce breast pain

Dr. Natterson-Horowitz and dairy veterinarian Joel Steiller are developing new strategies to help nursing women enhance milk production for their infants and to reduce mastitis, a common but painful inflammation of breast tissue.

 

By applying practices used by dairy veterinarians, their research seeks to develop improved treatments for women and design a better breast pump based on milking machines. 

Mapping mammary carcinoma in wild animals to identify communities at risk for poor breast health 

By creating environmental maps for mammary (breast) cancer, ovarian disorders and endometrial disease in other mammals, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz is expanding monitoring by wildlife biologists and veterinarians for non-communicable diseases in domestic pets, wild species and urban wildlife like squirrels, raccoons and rats. 

 

A group of researchers from UC Santa Barbara, the Smithsonian, Harvard and UCLA is placing special emphasis on conditions affecting women’s health with plans to later expand to a wider range of diseases.

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Scrutinizing ovulation patterns in wild animals as a model for irregular ovulation in women

Dr. Natterson-Horowitz is compiling a comprehensive databank of ovulation patterns, triggers and inducing effects in mammals, reptiles, birds and fish to:

 

(1) identify environmental factors that may influence human ovulation, and (2) identify biological strategies for potential use by human fertility experts. She is collaborating with colleagues at the Smithsonian, UC Santa Barbara and UCLA.

 Behavioral Health

Studying foal-rejection syndrome as a natural animal model of postpartum depression 

Collaborating with agricultural veterinarians, equine behaviorists and psychiatrists specializing in women’s health, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz is developing a cross-species roadmap to unravel shared biological mechanisms behind postpartum depression and infant rejection in horse and human mothers.  

 

A partnership between the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and Sidney Kimmel Medical College aims to identify early strategies for applying veterinary knowledge to the human syndrome,  A recent study discovered that rates of postpartum depression tripled in new mothers during the pandemic; a comparative approach could improving physicians’ understanding of the devastating mental health challenge.

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Working with Harvard medical students and the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz is studying how mammals, reptiles, birds and fish often react to a reduced social status by excessive or inadequate eating. The team seeks to identify the biological pathways supporting these responses, hypothesizing that they may be conserved in humans and could hold the potential to lessen similar reactions in people suffering from eating disorders.

Investigating animals’ appetite responses to lower social status as natural models for human eating disorders

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Studying mental illness in animals as a strategy for reducing mental health stigma in human societies

Dr. Natterson-Horowitz is studying behavioral abnormalities in animals to uncover parallel forms of psychological disease.in other species. She is using this knowledge to challenge the negative stereotypes and stigma associated with mental illness that lead to many communities’ poor access to behavioral health care. 

Eye Health

Monitoring cataracts across animal species and environments to pinpoint people at risk

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Partnering with the UCLA Stein Eye Institute, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz is exploring the evolutionary basis for vulnerability to cataracts. Her team has found cataracts in species ranging from fish and reptiles to birds and many mammals. She is using this information to:

(1) heighten awareness of other species’ visual health as a sentinel for human health

 

(2) accelerate the identification of natural animal models for resistance to cataracts. 

Heart Health

Studying giraffes as a natural model for resistance to the No. 1 cause of heart failure in women.

An international group is studying evolutionary adaptations underlying the giraffe’s normal cardiac function -- and ability to run up to 38 miles per hour, despite significant thickening of the heart’s left ventricle, or chamber.

 

In contrast, people with ventricular thickening are prone to a syndrome called heart failure with preserved ejection fraction. Stiffening of the heart’s left chamber prevents it from relaxing completely after pumping blood out of the heart to the rest of the body. This can cause severe fatigue, breathing difficulties, fluid buildup and rising pressure inside the heart. The condition causes half of the 6.2 million adult heart failure cases in the United States. 

 

Dr. Natterson-Horowitz is leading a team of collaborators from human and veterinary medicine, pathology and physiology at Denmark’s Aarhus University, the Copenhagen Zoo, Copenhagen University, the UCLA Cardiac Arrhythmia Center and Harvard Department of Human Evolutionary Biology.

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Comparative approaches to studying heart disease

Dr. Natterson-Horowitz is surveying other vertebrate species for different forms of cardiomyopathy, a chronic condition that weakens the heart muscle and prevents it from pumping blood to the rest of the body. The project seeks to (1) provide insight into the origins of cardiomyopathy; (2) raise awareness of other species’ cardiovascular health as sentinels for human health, and (3) accelerate the identification of natural animal models for resistance to heart failure. She is collaborating with colleagues at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Stanford Medical School, Western University and UCLA.

Unraveling the evolutionary origins of cardiovascular sex differences

Dr. Natterson-Horowitz is developing models to (1) study the evolutionary origins of cardiovascular sex differences; (2) create a framework for the comparative study of cardiovascular sex differences, and (3) identify animal models with differing levels of cardiovascular sex differences that may prove relevant to the study of women’s heart health. Her partners include medical scientists at Copenhagen’s Aarhus University, Harvard and UCLA.

Insights for human cardiovascular medicine from cross-species heart ultrasounds

Working with Western University, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz has conducted comparative studies of echocardiography (heart ultrasounds) across species. Her findings serve as a method for identifying natural animal models for cardiovascular disease – both in terms of vulnerability and resistance – and strengthen the training of cardiovascular fellows and medical residents.

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