As humans, we may feel rather lucky about our evolutionary lot. We live longer than many other animals, and lifespans continue to increase thanks to better diets, advances in medicine and improved public health. But our quest to beat ageing and its diseases continues.
Osteoarthritis rates, for example, have doubled since the mid-20th century. Heart disease in developed countries accounts for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year – about one every three minutes. Looking to the animal kingdom may be a good place to find new ways to prevent and treat these conditions. Our DNA may be remarkably similar to that of chimps and other animals, but it is the differences that might help us unlock new ways of understanding and treating disease in the future. And using gene-editing techniques like CRISPR, we might one day be able to use the knowledge we gain from animals to edit out disease – although that is still a distant prospect.
CHIMPANZEES AND HEART DISEASE
As humans have evolved, our genetic makeup has changed putting us at increased risk of clogged arteries. When you combine this with our increased intake of red meat and other foods that raise our odds of getting heart disease, we really are cooking up a perfect storm. Recent research shows that it was the loss of a specific gene that increased our risk of cardiovascular disease compared with other animals, including our closest cousin the chimpanzee.
NAKED MOLE RATS AND CANCER
The naked mole-rat may be hard on the eye, but this burrowing rodent is of great interest to scientists because it doesn’t get cancer. Naked mole rats could also teach us something about longevity. Given their size, they should live a similar length of time as their relative the dormouse (about four years), yet they often live seven times longer.
KANGAROOS AND OSTEOARTHRITIS
Osteoarthritis has many causes, but obesity, poor posture and poor joint alignment are key risks. Many primates and carnivores have similar joint problems to humans, with great apes showing some of the highest prevalence of the joint disease. Kangaroos, on the other hand, can bounce along at speeds of 40mph with little risk of arthritis, until well into old age. A unique cartilage structure in their knees enables them to withstand the forces of repeated bending and the impact of landing.
CAVEFISH AND DIABETES
Diabetes is a global health problem and is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and amputation. Nearly one in 10 adults has the disease. The solution to this disease – if there is one – may come from Mexican blind cavefish. These little fish gorge on algae and can binge without coming to any harm as they are uniquely adapted to survive without regulating blood sugar. This means the symptoms are normally seen in diabetic humans who have wildly varying blood glucose levels are not a problem for these fish.
ZEBRA AND ULCERS
In an increasingly pressured environment, we are becoming more aware of our mental health. But we often overlook how this can affect our physical health. As humans, our higher processing centres in the brain often link difficult things going on in our life. This means we experience chronic stress over long periods. Eventually, this can lead to ulcers. Animals, such as zebra, usually experience stress for shorter periods, such as when they are looking for food or trying to evade predators. They rarely experience longer, chronic periods of stress. – The Conversation