Canine cancer research benefits pets and humans

    Animals are frequently used as our surrogates in medical research. Rarely do the animals themselves benefit from any of this experimentation. Rarely, but not never.

    Animals are frequently used as our surrogates in medical research.  Mice, rats, fish, and flies model human diseases and provide guidance to scientists on whether a new drug or vaccine will work in people. Rarely do the animals themselves benefit from any of this experimentation. Rarely, but not never.

    Mobile users view the slideshow here (Photos: Todd Vachon).

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    Poker’s quick pass through an obstacle course in his backyard shows the eleven year old Dalmatian is pretty much back to his old self.

Poker’s owner, Leslie Rush says the dog still wins agility competitions — even after being diagnosed with cancer a year ago.

    Rush: But he’s still alive and he’s doing really really well. It’s the amazing thing.

    For most dogs, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma means about a year to live. In Poker’s case, it meant Rush was willing to try chemotherapy.

    Rush: It’s a lot of money. It ranged from maybe bottom, maybe $200 per week and if we had tests and scans done it was like $800 per week.

    Even after chemotherapy, most dogs relapse with a form of cancer that’s resistant to the treatment within twelve months. Although the timeline is compressed, the cancer closely mimics non-hodgkins lymphoma in humans.

    Mason: Many people don’t know this that dogs develop spontaneous tumors that are very similar to tumors in people.

    Nicola Mason is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. Mason is testing two approaches to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

    Mason: So we believe that when we can find and develop, identify agents that can be used safely in client owned animals and they have a benefit in those dogs then we believe that they’re most likely to have a beneficial effect in humans as well.

    One approach she’s taking is a cancer vaccine that would stimulate the animal’s immune system to ward off relapses. Another is a drug that corrects the out of control cell growth in tumors. Leslie Rush volunteered Poker for an experiment on the latter.

    Rush: The reason I went for this was like anybody would. They would think, oh my god, this is going to cure my dog. This is why I’m going. I didn’t at that time have any altruistic thoughts like I’m going to cure cancer or any of the plans that Dr. Mason had. I just thought, this could cure my dog. This is the chance I want to take.

    Results from both of Mason’s approaches are positive. The trial Poker was in will be expanded to more dogs. The cancer vaccine trial is still being followed for long term results, but several dogs have lived longer than Mason expected.

    Levine: The next step is to do a trial in humans.

    Bruce Levine is a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, on the human medical side. Getting new treatments into to dogs first takes less time, less money, and adds more data to an experimental therapy.

    Levine: Now is the point where we’re looking for grant funding.

    It could be biotech investment that licenses the technology so that we further develop that.

Turning animal studies into people studies is no small feat, and the majority of new treatments end of up failing once they are tested in humans.  For now, Doctor Mason is focusing on canine patients.

    Mason: The fact that it could go on and help people is of course a driving factor, but for me personally as a veternarian, my interests are really with the dogs.

There are currently no medications approved in humans that started out as therapies geared toward helping dogs.


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