Say your beloved beagle, Byron, has glaucoma. Or Emma, your much adored calico cat, has Type 2 diabetes. They’re family members. You’d do anything for them. But you’re staring at a fortune in veterinarian bills.

Unfortunately, this is the excruciating reality for millions of pet owners. But what if you could get Byron and Emma much needed cutting-edge care for free, prevent millions of lab animals from dying each year as test subjects in clinical trials, and help sick humans, all at the same time?

That’s the vision of Ben Lewis, a University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) and Wharton School student and former Olympic kayak team captain, and his business partner and wife, Christina Lopes, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. Their startup, The One Health Company, aims to reinvent how medical treatments are developed and delivered to both pets and people.

“Our mission is really to help save animal and human life,” says Lopes. “We want to revolutionize things and take them to the next level.”

First, a few surprising facts …

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that all pharmaceutical drugs, biologics and diagnostic/medical devices be tested on animals before going to human trials. To do this, diseases are induced in healthy animals who then are typically killed after testing is complete. An estimated 100 million lab animals — mice, monkeys, birds, dogs, cats and more — die each year as a result.

A huge percentage of drugs that work on animals in the lab fail to work on people because induced diseases aren’t that biologically similar to naturally occurring ones. For example, about 92 percent of cancer drugs that work in lab animals later fail in human clinical trials. That’s a lot of expensive failures — the cost of which gets passed on to consumers in the form of sky-high drug and treatment prices.

Pets tend to develop the same diseases as people because they live a similar lifestyle and are exposed to similar environmental elements. Not only do these pet diseases closely mimic the same diseases in humans, but treatments that work for one also work for the other. Consider the work of Dr. Nicola Mason, a Penn Vet professor, who has discovered an immunotherapy treatment for osteosarcoma (bone cancer) in dogs that’s also showing promise for use in humans .

lab mouse on gloved handLab mouse used for animal testing. (Photo: Global Panorama/flickr)

Changing the game

Armed with these facts, Lewis and Lopes decided it was time for a change. The couple, who share two children and four dogs (including a three-legged Doberman named Euro, who lost his limb to osteosarcoma), are harnessing the power of crowdsourcing to develop treatments and cures that benefit pets, lab animals, people and drug companies. In other words, everybody.

“Working in the veterinary field you realize there’s no shortage of sick pets and people who come to you to care for their animals,” Lewis says. “Rather than taking healthy animals and inducing disease, testing on them and then killing them at the end of the experiment, we locate pets across the country that are naturally sick and provide them treatment with potential life-saving human therapies that pharmaceutical companies are studying.”

Here’s how it works:

If you have a sick dog or cat and would like to enroll your pet in a clinical trial, you can sign up on the One Health Company website. Currently, there are 450,000 animals in the company’s recruitment database, but Lewis and Lopes are seeking millions more so they can be matched with pharmaceutical companies hunting for participants for specific therapies.

If you sign up and an appropriate trial is running in your area, you will be contacted to have your pet participate. Trials are conducted at top veterinary specialty hospitals by board-certified veterinary specialists. Drugs and devices have already been tested for safety and toxicology, so there’s little chance your pet will be harmed. Plus, the animal will not be kept in the lab during treatment and will return home with you.

Your pet will receive top care — and a potential cure — while contributing to the development of therapies that may also help millions of people. Drug companies lower their drug failure rate and development costs, and reduce the need to test on lab animals. Best of all, all expenses associated with your pet’s treatment are covered by The One Health Company, and you receive a lifetime of veterinary insurance for participating.

“What we’re doing really is a tremendous game-changer,” says Lewis. “We all love animals here. That’s one of our binding ties. This is a way to save people’s pets, to spare the lives of animals in laboratories, and also save human lives.”

Ben Lewis and Christina LopesBen Lewis and Christina Lopes with their new baby discuss their startup at an entrepreneurship event at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. (Photo: Jonathan Sockol)

Everybody wins

The company is currently involved in research on a novel therapy for irritable bowel syndrome. A dozen more trials are in the pipeline, including a study on transitional cell carcinoma (cancer of the urinary system), ocular melanoma (eye cancer) and a morphine alternative for pain relief.

Lewis and Lopes welcome all dog and cat breeds and are interested in any disease. The idea is that the bigger and more diverse the database, the more quickly and economically cures can be developed and distributed to humans and pets everywhere.

“What an amazing time we’re living in with so many cures for major diseases being developed,” says Lopes. “But a lot of innovation doesn’t get to the poorest and neediest folks because of cost. Hopefully we’re impacting the cost of drug development, and also access.”