Research in Dog Cancer May be Key to Fighting Cancer in Humans

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9.18.12 Dog Cancer
Veterinarian researcher Amy MacNeill

Breakthroughs in scientific studies have recently found that the bond between humans and dogs goes much deeper than companionship – right down to genetics.  We share many of the same disorders and diseases, such as epilepsy and cancer.  Now research has found a possible cancer treatment that can be more effective and less harmful than chemotherapy.

Humans have been breeding dogs to promote desirable and eliminate undesirable traits in dogs since they first began to tame them.  By doing so, breeders have limited the number of genes in the pool, which has made dogs more prone to diseases carried in recessive genes.  This is why when it comes to inherited illnesses and impairments, such as respiratory issues in short-snouted dogs, mutts are considered far healthier.

But whether inherited or not, all dog breeds are susceptible to cancer.  Matthew Breen, a researcher at North Carolina University conducted a study on dogs suffering from lymphoma.  His team was able to isolate a genetic indicator that predicts how long a dog will respond to chemotherapy.  This knowledge may help improve treatment for human lymphoma patients.

“Within the canine genome, we’re starting to find the answers we’ve been looking for in our own genome for 50 years,” Breen announced.

This kind of research is happening across the country.  At the University of Illinois, veterinarian and pathobiology professor Amy MacNeill led a study on a radical new treatment in spontaneously-occurring cancer in dogs.  A pox virus called myxoma affects rabbits, but not dogs or humans.  It was discovered that when the virus was put in a cell culture, it attacked the cancerous dog cells, but incredibly, left healthy cells untouched.  In another study, it was found that the deletion of a single gene from the virus made it 400 percent more effective at killing infected cells.

“Ideally, what would happen is the virus would get into a few cancer cells, cause cell death and then spread to the other tumor cells nearby,” MacNeill said.

This could be immensely helpful in treating both dogs and humans with cancer.  While chemotherapy and radiation can eradicate tumors and send cancer into remission, it cannot distinguish between cancerous and healthy cells.  This weakens the immune system, which can cause things like the common cold to become serious infections.

Other studies have shown that these viral therapies may be combined with current cancer treatments.

“There was a study in cats where they removed the tumor surgically and then they put a viral therapy in the area where the tumor had been removed,” MacNeill said.  “The animals that received the viral therapy had significantly less regrowth of the cancer than those that weren’t exposed to the virus after surgery.”

Many more years of research must be done before such a drastic new treatment is put to use in humans or dogs.

“We wanted to make sure that the dog cells were like the human cells because we want to use these viruses not only to cure dogs of cancer but also to use the dogs as better models for humans with cancer,” MacNeill explained. “People are beginning to see the logic of this approach. These dogs have spontaneous tumors just like humans, they’re living in the same environment as humans, they’re exposed to the same carcinogens in the water if there are any and they sometimes even share our food.”

The advances sound promising, and soon there may come a day where humans and dogs alike have a 100 percent shot at beating cancer.