Using animal blood, the researchers hope to improve the accuracy of AI driven diagnostic technology

What does a cheetah, a tortoise, and a Humboldt penguin have in common? They are zoo animals helping scientists at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany, find biomarkers that can help computer-assisted diagnoses of diseases in humans at early stages. And they are not the only animals lending a paw or claw.

In their initial research, the scientists used blood samples that had been collected during routine examinations of 21 zoo animals between 2016 and 2018, said a news release. The team of bioinformatics and human genetics experts worked with German zoos Saarbrücken and Neunkircher for the study. The project progresses, and thus far, they’ve studied the blood of 40 zoo animals, the release states.

This research work may eventually add useful biomarkers and assays that clinical laboratories can use to support physicians as they diagnose patients, select appropriate therapies, and monitor the progress of their patients. As medical laboratory scientists know, for many decades, the animal kingdom has been the source of useful insights and biological materials that have been incorporated into laboratory assays.

“Measuring the molecular blood profiles of animals has never been done before this way,” said Andreas Keller, PhD, Saarland University Bioinformatics Professor and Chair for Clinical Bioinformatics, in the news release. The Saarland researchers published their findings in Nucleic Acids Research, an Oxford Academic journal.

“Studies on sncRNAs [small non-coding RNAs] are often largely based on homology-based information, relying on genomic sequence similarity and excluding actual expression data. To obtain information on sncRNA expression (including miRNAs, snoRNAs, YRNAs and tRNAs), we performed low-input-volume next-generation sequencing of 500 pg of RNA from 21 animals at two German zoological gardens,” the article states.

Can Animals Improve the Accuracy of AI to Detect Disease in Humans?

In their research, Saarland scientists rely on advanced next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to sequence RNA and microRNA. Their goal is to better understand the human genome and cause of diseases.

However, the researchers perceived an inability for AI and machine learning to discern real biomarker patterns from those that just seemed to fit.

“The machine learning methods recognize the typical patterns, for example for a lung tumor or Alzheimer’s disease. However, it is difficult for artificial intelligence to learn which biomarker patterns are real and which only seem to fit the respective clinical picture. This is where the blood samples of the animals come into play,” Keller states in the news release.

“If a biomarker is evolutionarily conserved, i.e. also occurs in other species in similar form and function, it is much more likely that it is a resilient biomarker,” Keller explained. “The new findings are now being incorporated into our computer models and will help us to identify the correct biomarkers even more precisely in the future.”

Andreas Keller, PhD (left), and zoo director Richard Francke (right), hold a pair of radiated tortoises that participated in the Saarland University study. (Photo copyright: Oliver Dietze/Saarland University.)

Microsampling Aids Blood Collection at Zoos

The researchers used a Neoteryx Mitra blood collection kit to secure samples from the animals and volunteers. Dark Daily previously reported on this microsampling technology in, “Innovations in Microsampling Blood Technology Mean More Patients Can Have Blood Tests at Home, and Clinical Laboratories May Advance Toward Precision Medicine Goals,” November 28, 2018.

“Because blood can be obtained in a standardized manner and miRNA expression patterns are technically very stable, it is easy to accurately compare expression between different animal species. In particular, dried blood spots or microsampling devices appear to be well suited as containers for miRNAs,” the researchers wrote in Nucleic Acids Research.

Animal species that participated in the study include:

Additionally, human volunteers contributed blood specimens for a total of 19 species studied. The scientists reported success in capturing data from all of the species. They are integrating the information into their computer models and have developed a public database of their findings for future research.

“With our study, we provide a large collection of small RNA NGS expression data of species that have not been analyzed before in great detail. We created a comprehensive publicly available online resource for researchers in the field to facilitate the assessment of evolutionarily conserved small RNA sequences,” the researchers wrote in their paper.         

Clinical Laboratory Research and Zoos: A Future Partnership?

This novel involvement of zoo animals in research aimed at improving the ability of AI driven diagnostics to isolate and identify human disease is notable and worth watching. It is obviously pioneering work and needs much additional research. At the same time, these findings give evidence that there is useful information to be extracted from a wide range of unlikely sources—in this case, zoo animals.

Also, the use of artificial intelligence to search for useful patterns in the data is a notable part of what these researchers discovered. It is also notable that this research is focused on sequencing DNA and RNA of the animals involved with the goal of identifying sequences that are common across several species, thus demonstrating the common, important functions they serve.

In coming years, those clinical laboratories doing genetic testing in support of patient care may be incorporating some of this research group’s findings into their interpretation of certain gene sequences.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Blood Samples from the Zoo Help Predict Diseases in Humans

The sncRNA Zoo: A Repository for Circulating Small Noncoding RNAs in Animals

ASRA Public Database of Small Non-Coding RNAs

Innovations in Microsampling Blood Technology Mean More Patients Can Have Blood Tests at Home and Clinical Laboratories May Advance Toward Precision Medicine Goals