Our four-legged friends could play a major role in the war on cancer.
“A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours. Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty.”
Isn’t it true? We learn so much from our dogs. But beyond what man’s best friend can teach us about enjoying life, they share something else with us. Cancer diagnoses in dogs are on the rise, as are cancer diagnoses in people. In fact, canine cancer is the leading cause of death in pets 10 years and older.
This confluence – it turns out – can be beneficial to cancer research. A field of study known as comparative oncology has recently emerged as a promising means to help cure cancer.
Comparative oncology researchers study the similarities between naturally occurring cancers in pets and cancers in people to provide clues to treat cancer more effectively.
“Cancer diagnoses in dogs are on the rise, as are cancer diagnoses in people.”
Research in this field, involving veterinarians, physicians, cancer specialists and basic scientists, is leading to improved human health and more rapid access to effective cancer treatment than has been previously possible through traditional cancer research approaches.
More like your dog than you know
As a species, dogs have strong physiologic and genetic similarities to people, much more so than mice, who do not typically live long enough for us to know whether they naturally get cancer.
We do know that some rodent species such as pet rats can get cancer. But predators typically end a field mouse’s life while it is still young. The laboratory mice typically used by scientists are injected with cancer rather than it occurring naturally in their bodies.
Just as scientists officially mapped the human genome – or the complete set of genetic instructions – in 2003, scientists decoded the canine genome. They discovered that dogs have greater than 80 percent genetic similarity to humans, versus only 67 percent for mice.
“Dogs have greater than 80 percent genetic similarity to humans.”
Many of the genetic mutations that drive cells to become cancerous in people are the same mutations that cause cancer in dogs. In fact, when viewed under a microscope, it is impossible to distinguish between a tumor from a human and a dog.
Dogs also provide a large and varied population to study – important in the study of medicine. Individual dogs who develop cancer are as different from one another as are humans.
Whereas laboratory mice are essentially identical to each other and live in a highly regulated environment, the variation among different dog breeds, home environments, diet and overall lifestyle translates into a population diversity very similar to that in humans.
Today, most pet dogs receive high-quality health care into old age, and dog owners are highly motivated to seek out improved options for the management of cancer in their companions.
Discovering treatment plans
This genetic diversity and sharing of similar DNA, physiology, microscopic structure and molecular features between dogs and humans has presented cancer researchers with a key opportunity.
Dogs not only develop similar types of cancers as humans, but their cancer responds to treatments in similar ways.
This means that new cancer treatments first shown to be effective in canine cancers can frequently be predicted to have a similar benefit in human cancer patients.
As a result, researchers now recognize that new drug trials in dogs with cancer will result in therapeutic discoveries that are highly translatable – more likely to predict medical responses in human cancer patients.
By studying how cancer responds in dogs, scientists are gaining a better understanding of how new cancer drugs not only treat cancer but also influence the patient’s overall quality of life.
“Our furry companions have a crucial role in teaching us new ways to help all victims in the war on cancer.”
Dogs with cancer are helping kids
For example, a bone cancer known as osteosarcoma is so similar between dogs and people that intensive research in canine osteosarcoma has led to several breakthroughs in treating osteosarcoma in children.
Limb-saving surgical techniques for safe and effective reconstruction following bone tumor surgery in dogs are now the standard of care for children following bone tumor surgery.
More recently, a form of immunotherapy was shown to drastically improve survival in dogs with bone cancer by delaying or altogether preventing spread of the cancer to the lungs. As a result of the success in dogs, the FDA granted fast-track status to the same treatment for use in humans last April.
Fast-tracking was developed by the FDA to support accelerated approval for promising treatments, especially for serious and life-threatening conditions. A clinical trial in children with osteosarcoma is scheduled to begin this year at multiple pediatric cancer centers throughout the United States.
These types of discoveries demonstrate that our furry companions have a crucial role in teaching us new ways to help all victims in the war against cancer – with two legs or four.
This article first appeared on The Conversation and was republished with permission.
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