The Q&A: Christian Abee

In this week's Q&A, we interview Christian R. Abee, the director of the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Christian R. Abee is the Director of the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

With each issue, Trib+Health brings you an interview with experts on issues related to health care. Here is this week's subject:

Christian R. Abee is the director of the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He is a diplomate and past president of the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine and has served as the president of the Association of Primate Veterinarians. He currently serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Biomedical Research. He is the principal investigator of two national research resources of nonhuman primates supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health. His research interests include studies of the biology of neotropical primates and the development of nonhuman primate models to address human health issues. The center annually opens to the public each May.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Health: What is the goal of the Keeling Center? 

Christian Abee: It is cancer research, but really it is cancer and allied diseases. Many people don’t realize that cancer patients suffer from many other diseases that are related to their cancer. Frequently they are immunosuppressed. Either the cancer itself causes immunosuppression or some of the treatments that they take will cause immunosuppression. There are a number other diseases that cancer patients can suffer from.

We carry it one step further that we are interested in conducting research that will impact human health in a positive way, and frequently we can also impact animal health. Animals can suffer from many of the same disease that people do.

Comparative medicine is really the study of diseases across species.

Trib+Health: How many species are you working with at the center?

Abee: We have several non-human primate species. We have sheep, sometimes pigs, mice, a few geese. I would say primarily here we work with non-human primates.

Trib+Health: How is it beneficial working with all those species rather than just mice that you heard about in other research? 

Abee: It depends on what you are studying. It becomes a pretty complex scientific question to determine what species might have the specific attributes that you are looking for to answer the question you are asking.

Even though mice are used predominantly in biomedical research, mice have their limitations. For example, scientists in general, we’ve had a number of instances where we have been successful in curing a particular kind of cancer in a mouse but it does not translate to humans.

Non-human primates, on the other hand, are phylogenetically closer to human beings. So their immune systems are more similar than the immune system of a mouse. And how they might respond to a treatment would be different. In many cases, it would more closely resemble how a human would respond.

In some cases, you do fundamental research in mice and you find something that you think is very important. Or a pathway you might be able to exploit in treating cancer. Then you look at a phylogenetically higher species to see if your finding translates to that species. That gets you closer to an answer, whether it would respond the same way in humans. 

Trib+Health: Does the center focus on understanding disease or developing treatments? 

Abee: It is a mixture of both. There are times when we study the disease itself. For example, rhesus monkeys naturally develop a disease similar to a very important disease in humans. That is colon cancer. It is the No. 2 cause of mortality in people who develop cancer after the age of 50. 

By studying the pathogenesis of the disease in rhesus monkeys, it gives us some insights into the disease in humans, and possibly approaches to treating that disease.

At the same time, new treatments for colon cancer could be tested in rhesus monkeys that have the disease to see if they get a beneficial effect from it.

Even more important is to determine whether new drugs are in fact safe to be used in humans. The physician's creed is first do no harm. In providing a treatment, you want to make sure that the treatment is not dangerous itself and, if it is, that you understand the danger so that you can minimize how it might adversely affect the patient.

Trib+Health: Why do these tours and the annual open house?

Abee: We have an obligation to the public to help them understand what we do and why we do it. It is very important to educate people about science. This one area of science I think is not really well understood. The more people know, the better off we all are.

Trib+Health: What is misunderstood about this kind of research?

Abee: I think there are many people that believe that you don’t need animals at all to do research that gets you new treatments or a discovery about a disease. There are many people that believe that can just be modeled by the computer or it could be done with a cell line. You can do things with computers and you can do things with cell lines, but there are many questions you cannot answer with either of those. Animal research is incredibly important to answering those questions.