Taking a One Health Approach to Muscle Loss Research

An innovative conference will team experts in veterinary and human health to examine sarcopenia and healthy aging in people and pets

Two Tufts scientists are providing an example of how a One Health collaboration between animal and human health researchers can achieve better outcomes for both people and pets.

Sarcopenia, the medical term for the age-related decline in muscle mass and strength, is a syndrome seen frequently in both humans and companion animals, such as dogs and cats. It is a common indicator of the aging process as well as diseases like cancer and heart disease.

That's why veterinary nutritionist Lisa Freeman, A86, V91, N96, approached Roger Fielding, N93, associate center director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts. Fielding is an expert in sarcopenia in humans, and Freeman wanted to see if the international conference he was helping to organize could include information on sarcopenia in animals. 

The result is that the International Conference on Frailty and Sarcopenia Research, which begins April 20 in Boston, will include a satellite summit entitled “Sarcopenia Across Species: A One Health Approach.” The goal: to get more scientists who are working on human muscle wasting and frailty as it affects healthy aging to talk with scientists studying similar issues in companion animal health.

“It’s simply not as effective or efficient to study muscle wasting in parallel,” says Freeman, a professor of Clinical Nutrition at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, who has a veterinary degree and a Ph.D. in nutrition from Tufts.

“We can each learn so much more from each other and by working together,” says Fielding, who is also a senior scientist on the HNRCA’s sarcopenia team and professor of biochemical and molecular nutrition and medicine. “I thought it was a great idea.”

Why Study Aging in Pets?

Relatively speaking, it is easier to study disease states and test potential treatments in rodent models in a laboratory. But rodents are not similar enough to humans to always be good predictors of positive results in human clinical trials. “When we go from mice to humans, we frequently have translational failures, and what looked like a treatment that would be successful in pre-clinical studies often doesn’t work in humans,” says Freeman.

“In rodent models studied in the laboratory, all the rodents are genetically identical,” Freeman adds. “They are bred that way. In comparison, companion animals have more genetic variability than lab animals, and they actually live in the same environments as their human companions. These two factors together make them potentially better to study.” 

Naturally occurring muscle wasting and weight loss are very common in companion animals as they age. Pet dogs and cats also commonly develop other diseases found in humans that involve muscle and weight loss, including heart failure, cancer, and kidney disease.

Just as humans are living longer, so too are cats and dogs. As the population of elderly companion animals increases, it becomes easier to study naturally occurring diseases and conditions that, like sarcopenia, develop as a part of aging. 

In fact, one such study that will be discussed at the conference, called The Dog Aging Project, will follow tens of thousands of companion dogs for 10 years in order to identify the biological and environmental factors that maximize healthy longevity. The goal is to use the information gleaned to help both dogs and people increase health span, or the period of life spent free from disease.

Increasing Quality, Not Just Quantity, of Life

Sarcopenia can lead to decreased strength and balance and is a component of so-called “frailty syndrome,” which can impact healthy aging in older pets and humans as their bodies lose the ability to respond to stress, whether it be injury or illness.

Several classes of drugs being studied target various pathways that may be involved in muscle loss as humans and pets age. These include steroidal and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; drugs targeting ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite and increases food intake and muscle; and drugs targeting myostatin, a protein that when overproduced in the body can inhibit muscle cell growth. The important roles exercise and nutrition can play in slowing muscle loss are also being examined.

“So much of the research and clinical efforts in the field of aging, for both humans and companion animals, is now focused on studying health span rather than lifespan,” says Fielding. “People aren’t just interested in living longer, but living disease- and syndrome-free for as long as they can. People are more concerned about how well they will live, about not losing their independence and having to rely upon others for care.”

“We’re always looking for ways to increase the quality of life for ourselves and our pets,” he adds.

Black and white photo of older woman's profile
Photo: Alonso Nichols

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