Doctors, Researchers Work to Find Cure, Treatments for Fibrotic Lung Disease in Humans and Pets

Pet and human doctors are working together to tackle pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that affects many species. The disease kills 40,000 people each year in the United States — a number that rival breast cancer figures — yet it gets a fraction of the attention. There are no reliable figures in veterinary medicine, experts say.

Eleven researchers met in Indiana Oct. 8-10, 2007, to discuss and compare data on the disease, which affects people ages 40 to 60 and pets ages six to nine in similar ways. It is believed to be the first collaboration of human/animal doctors on this topic. Organizers hope it is the first step toward finding an effective treatment.

Veterinary pathologists believe pulmonary fibrosis is frequently misdiagnosed in pets and confused with chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There is no treatment — aside from palliative care — for the disease in pets or people, and once diagnosed, patients are only given a few months or years to live.

For veterinarians, the goal is to create better guidelines for early diagnosis and collect necropsy data to help identify the cause and a cure for the disease, both of which have eluded doctors for years. Progressive fibrotic lung disease has been documented in dogs, cats, and horses, and veterinary professionals suspect that the species list may be longer.

Medical professionals now question how many types of the disease exist because symptoms — which include exercise intolerance, dyspnea, and tachypnea in dogs — are similar but the disease itself is different in the four species in which it has been diagnosed, said Kurt Williams, DVM, PhD, ACVP, who participated in the conference. 

“Chronic interstitial lung disease is a very poorly understood and characterized entity in companion animals,” he explained. “This initiative is very important because there is this gap in our knowledge. We need to determine if there is more than one chronic fibrotic interstitial lung disease in companion animals.”

Human doctors know that there is a genetic component to the disease and believe there are environmental and viral aspects to it as well, said Wayne Kompare, president of the Westie Foundation of America, which helped fund the conference.

Veterinarians left the meeting with three action items, including the establishment of a phenotype for canine pulmonary fibrosis, tissue banking in the United States, and a comprehensive epidemiology. There are many types of fibrotic lung disease in humans but no definitive parameters in pets, which illustrates the need for phenotypes, Kompare said.

“We’re trying to catch up on the animal side,” Kompare added.

Attendees, including renowned international respiratory specialists, plan to publish a white paper and pursue joint research, said Erika Werne, director of canine research and education for the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation.

“We are working to build collaborations between the canine and human researchers who are working diligently to identify the causes and potential treatments for this (and other) diseases,” Werne said.

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