Shedding Light On Human Cancer By Studying Canine Cancer

Apr 11, 2015

If you have cancer – and your dog has cancer – it turns out you may be treated with the exact same drugs.

Dr. Carolyn Henry is a professor of oncology at the University of Missouri Veterinary School.
Credit Bridgit Bowden / Heartland Health Monitor

Dr. Carolyn Henry, a veterinary oncologist at the University of Missouri veterinary school, says that, unlike lab mice, dogs get cancer naturally, just like humans. So their cancers are more likely to behave like human cancer when treated.

“It’s the same disease, it really doesn’t matter what the species is,” Henry says. “It’s the same disease if it occurs naturally. And so, answers in one species should translate to answers in other species in many cases.”

On a recent afternoon at the University of Missouri animal hospital, Dr. Jeff Bryan, a veterinary oncologist, treated a 13-year-old dog named Susie for a possible tumor in her bladder.

He says our pets face the same environmental risk factors for cancer that humans do.

Dr. Jeff Bryan is an associate professor of oncology at the University of Missouri Veterinary School.
Credit Bridgit Bowden / Heartland Health Monitor

“They have all the same exposures that we have in our lives,” Bryan says. “They breathe our air, they may breathe our cigarette smoke. They live in our houses, they drink our drinking water.”

Thanks to an initiative called One Health/One Medicine, university researchers and doctors are working together to develop new treatments for cancer. Some of the drugs, like one called Quadramet, were developed at the university’s nuclear research reactor.

David Robertson, the reactor’s associate director of research and education, says timing is crucial while working with radioactive isotopes.

“If I make Samarium 153 in the reactor on Monday, by Wednesday half of it is gone,” Robertson says. “By Friday I only have a quarter of it left. If I’m going to use this radioactive material in new drug development for something that has a half-life that short, it’s very convenient to have the vet school, the med school, the chemistry and isotope production all located on the same campus.”

Quadramet was tested first in dogs at the university’s veterinary school. Because dogs age much faster than humans, their cancers also advance much more quickly. That means if you’re a clinical researcher, you’ll see results sooner.

“What you would see as a five-year survival success rate in people would probably correlate to a one-year survival rate in a dog, so we definitely get our answers more quickly,” Dr. Henry says.

Dr. Bryan says pet owners who have been touched by cancer themselves are often the ones to seek more experimental treatment for their pets.

“And so, they have a really personal motivation to try and help their animal,” Bryan says. “And those are often the patients we see in clinical trials because they want the cancer their animal has to be meaningful in the whole large scheme of fighting cancer.”

Here, Dr. Bryan is echoing something oncologists frequently say: that clinical trials are key to innovation in cancer research – both for humans, and for our dogs.

Bridgit Bowden is entrepreneurship reporter for KCPT television in Kansas City, Mo., a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.