Credit: Jude Edington/Channel 4
In advance of tomorrow’s second instalment of The Supervet’s fascinating new TV series ‘Bionic Specials’, we speak to Professor Noel Fitzpatrick about his pioneering work.
Professor Noel Fitzpatrick, star of Channel 4’s smash-hit documentary series The Supervet, is arguably the most famous and best-loved vet in the UK, with his shows regularly watched by over 2 million viewers. But he is also a scientist, an inventor and innovator in his field. As the world’s leading neuro-orthopaedic veterinary surgeon, his groundbreaking surgical procedures have transformed the lives – and life chances – of many of our nation’s pets.
For the first time in the history of The Supervet, four brand new hour-long documentary specials go beyond the operating table to delve deeper into the science behind Noel’s cutting-edge procedures, revealing how he continually pushes the boundaries of veterinary medicine, with the help of special onscreen 3D graphics giving viewers a glimpse into the extraordinary ambition of Noel’s state of the art surgeries.
Noel with Cavalier King Charles spaniel Molly, and a 3D model of Molly’s skull with a titanium mesh implant, mirroring the design used to reconstruct her skull after removing a tumour Credit: Jude Edington/Channel 4
Why is this new series of Supervet so different?
This is the first series of Supervet where we focus on the science behind the life enhancing bionic surgery that I do every day. I was determined that this new bionic series would also continue to be about love, hope and redemption through the eyes of people who love their animals and animals who love their families.
In this special four-part series, we focus on the technological revolution in bioengineering and regenerative medicine which has enabled these animals to receive advanced surgeries. Many of these procedures and implant systems have never been seen before. Some of them are world firsts.
We are in the midst of great change in medicine. For me this is a deeply personal series of films which chart the evolution of thought regarding techniques and implants which have taken place over more than a decade. It is ever more apparent in the world of medicine that surgery involving bionics and regenerative medicine should be shared among animals and humans for the greater good of all.
This is how most progress can be made and this is the message of One Medicine to which I dedicate my life and the charity I have founded that champions this message -The Humanimal Trust. I strongly believe that all animals should be given all of the options, all of the time, for families that love those animals. Right now in veterinary medicine that often doesn’t happen, which is a shame. One of the major reasons why this doesn’t happen is lack of awareness of the available technology and lack of willingness to employ these technologies for the greater good of our animal friends.
Many of the techniques demonstrated in this series are not available for human patients yet and this should herald a wake-up call for human surgeons everywhere that unless we move forward together, both human and animal medicine will be much worse off because of this lack of communication.
It is incredible when you think that in the Paralympics in twenty years from now people may be running using the implants and techniques which will be seen in these animals in the new Supervet series.
Why should viewers make a special effort to watch these new episodes?
I strongly feel that anyone who is interested in love, health and something to look forward to, should watch these programmes. They represent a paradigm shift in our awareness of possibility and responsibility for our animal friends and importantly, for ourselves in the future.
The definition of bionic is having an anatomical structures or physiological processes that are replaced or enhanced by electronic or mechanical components. Bionic limbs and regenerative medicine involving stem cells and three-dimensional printing of implants will be seen for the very first time by most of the audience. The implants and techniques are so advanced that it may be several years before some of them are available in human patients.
This new series is therefore a peg in the ground for advances in medical technology that can and should change the world we live in for the better, bringing hope to hundreds of thousands of animals and humans that desperately need cures for their diseases. These four programmes chart the emotional journeys, the deep compassion and the technological revolution behind treatments and cures for animals and humans of the future.
What are the challenges you face when using new technology to help your patients?
The main challenge nowadays is not so much the technology because pretty much everything is possible, it is the moral and ethical implications of moving forward. Many people both within and outside the veterinary profession believe that we should not move forward with custom joint replacements and bionic limbs or spinal disc replacements and regenerative medicine in pet dogs and cats because the current options of full limb amputation or euthanasia may, in their view, be kinder for the animal.
Meanwhile all of these technologies will be tried out in experimental animals for the benefit of humans. How is this fair? Should veterinary medicine move forward or stay still? The decisions we make must always be in the best interests of the patient and it is not enough to be able to do something, it has to be the right thing to do for that patient in that moment in time.
People simply do not realise that they have choice and that the phrase “it cannot be done” is to some extent obsolete. It’s more a case of, is it in the best welfare interests of that particular animal at this moment in time for this family that loves them.
I personally get some criticism for moving things too far in veterinary medicine and yet, I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I would never pick up a scalpel blade and operate on any animal if I wouldn’t do it on my own dog or if I didn’t feel I could provide that animal with a reasonable quality of life in a reasonable time frame because it was the right thing to do.
Credit: Jude Edington/Channel 4
What does making these special bionic programmes mean to you personally?
I think that if people really watch these programmes and understand the breadth and depth of experience in the animal and human field that go into the development of each and every initiative, they will realise that there is an entire team of compassionate, caring people – desperately trying to do their best for the animal kingdom with a view to making a real difference to that animal and to the wider world.
These programmes chart the last fifteen years or so of my efforts to move medical techniques forward for the good of our animal friends. Ever since I started out as a child wanting to be a vet, all I ever wanted to do was make things better and find solutions where existing options were poor. Looking back on the journey, I recognise the cost emotionally and financially because in the development of any technique or implant, one must do so for love. I hope that these programmes will go some way to countering any doubt that surrounds motivation for progress in medicine and explains to people the thought, the effort and the love that goes into each and every implant and technique.
All I’ve ever wanted to do is to be an advocate for the animal, to say that this animal who gives us so very much deserves our best efforts by return and that every one of our animal friends deserve their little spot in the world and deserve to live a life without suffering. What makes the journey deeply personal however, is what I believe to be the unfairness and silliness of animals giving humanity all we need in terms of safe drugs and implants, but animals with those diseases not getting that same medical progress by way of return? I sincerely hope that this series of programmes will go some way to prompting our social conscience to redress this balance. Then my life will have had some meaning in the overall scheme of things.
When you look into the future in your bionic world, what is your greatest hope and your greatest fear?
My greatest fear is that humans will continue to use animals for advancements in human medicine without reciprocating the development of implants and drugs for the benefit of animals. It does not make sense to me to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of animals to develop drugs and implants for humans that those animals never get to see. It would be much better in my opinion, if information were shared between veterinary and human medicine simultaneously.
This is the concept of One Medicine and this is my greatest hope for the world. I think that within the next two generations we will determine the fate of many animals on planet Earth and my greatest hope for the children of future generations is that we maintain biodiversity and we look after our animal friends, because by doing so we really do look after ourselves.
It’s all about respect, for the animals, for the planet and for each other. To my mind, there is no other rational option and in a very real sense these programmes explain the charter for my mission on The Earth. It is the integration of bioengineering and regenerative medicine with human and animal bodies in the future that heralds a bright new horizon of hope. I intend to shine that light into the world for as long as I live and hope that this will illuminate the lives of both humans and animals.
The Supervet: Bionic Stories is on Channel 4 at 8pm on Thursday.