It’s the ultimate enemy — as comfortable striking down the old, the young, the famous, the family member.
Cancer is on the rise across the world, with recent research finding that one in two people in the UK are now predicted to be diagnosed with the disease during their lifetime. Yet somewhat surprisingly, for such a dangerous and high-profile disease, much of the treatment has not changed very much in recent decades: chemotherapy techniques for bone cancer have not advanced since being developed back in 1990.
There’s also a real need to improve diagnosis, as a more than 90% of bowel cancer patients and women with breast cancer will survive for more than 5 years if diagnosed at the earliest stage of the cancer.
Maybe it’s time for teaching an old process new tricks.
“Since the domestication of their wolf ancestors over 10,000 years ago, our canine companions have grown to become intimate parts of our lives and our families,” Cancer Research writes. “As any dog owner will assure you, they share our joys, our sorrows, and seemingly even our thoughts.
“Another thing we share, unfortunately, is cancer.”
Sadly for owners, but of interest to scientists, dogs are one of the few animals to naturally develop cancerous tumours, which grow at a similar speed to those in humans. Dogs with cancer, therefore, become ‘patients’ in clinics, able to test new drug and gene therapies with the consent of the owner.
Dogs also have a much shorter life span than a human, meaning they reach a level of maturity and subsequent propensity to develop cancer much faster. Half of dogs over the age of 10 are expected to develop cancer, making it easier to measure the impact of interventions at different stages of life.
What’s more, there are over 400 recognised breed of dog, all of which have individual genetic makeups. This level of variety gives another basis from which scientists can test different medicine, address questions about optimal dose amount and timings, and work on the early detection of cancer.
“Lymphoma is more likely to affect golden retrievers, whereas glioma, a form of brain cancer, is more prominent in Boston terriers, boxers, and bulldogs,” Cancer Research adds. “A form of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma occurs more often in standard poodles—but only those with black fur.”
A US Government blog relays the findings of a study by James Gulley MD through the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research, which initiated the first human clinical trial of a treatment called NHS-IL 12 following a study of the experimental drug’s usage in pet dogs with melanoma. The treatment “appeared to work” and in humans only causes mild side effects “that resolved quickly”.
Similarly, Ellen Puré, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, works with the Penn Vet Cancer Center and aims to take basic cancer discoveries and use them to develop more effective ways to treat and even prevent cancer in all species.
Wired reports that in the past decade, 10 cancer drugs have been made with input from canine studies. Part of this has been supported by the US Government’s ‘Moonshot Initiative’, aiming to ‘end cancer as we know it’. The FDA approved a treatment called selinexor for people with multiple myeloma, based on a drug used in dogs.
Stephen Johnston, Director of the Center for Innovations in Medicine at Arizona State University, is noted to have received a multi-million-dollar grant to test ‘the first vaccine to target tumour cells to stop them from developing into a cancerous growth’. The first stage of the study? Working with dogs, and attempting to find so-called ‘junk proteins’ created by splicing errors.
His plan is to help “pre-arm” the immune system against things the tumour will produce, thereby preventing cancer in at least 30% of dogs by triggering an earlier immune response.
All of the scientists are clear there’s no catch-all cure — cancer is far too complex, and perhaps even personalised, for that. But the new studies may well be helping to advance knowledge quickly enough to extend the lives of loved ones, whether they’re on two or four legs.