Common Cancer of Humans and Dogs Found Nearly Identical

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Most of us appreciate how similar humans and dogs are. We like the same foods, enjoy many of the same activities, and love snuggles under the covers. In addition to sharing the finer things in life, new research reveals one of the most common types of cancer is nearly identical in both humans and dogs. Researchers from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Duke University recently published findings in the journal Cancer Research that show both dogs and humans develop a molecularly comparable cancer called diffuse B-cell lymphoma. This is the most common lymphoma subtype in humans and one of the most common canine cancers diagnosed by veterinarians.

In the study, cancer cells from dogs and humans were compared by molecular analysis. The gene expression of B-cell lymphomas from humans and dogs were found to be very similar. Although further research is needed to verify these discoveries, the scientists were very optimistic that this may usher in a new era in the collaboration between human and veterinary medicine.

These findings are important because they give new insight into the behavior and evolution of cancer. Certain properties of cancer cells are preserved throughout generations and across species. Ultimately, those unique properties could be turned into vulnerabilities by new cancer treatments. Additionally, understanding that this cancer behaves similarly in dogs and humans advances our understanding of the basic biology of cancer. The better we understand cancer, the better our chances to defeat it.

Dogs and humans get cancer at similar rates without clear causes. Most cancers in dogs and humans occur spontaneously as opposed to genetic causes in mice. This makes studying dogs with cancer a better model for certain human cancers. This finding could lead to more advanced clinical trials for dogs with the ultimate goal to develop better human cancer treatments. As a practicing veterinarian, this means my pet patients may have better access to cutting edge drugs in the future. One day we may be able to enroll pet cancer patients in clinical trials similar to what human cancer patients undergo today. Those findings could then be used to facilitate drugs and treatments for humans diagnosed with the same type of cancer.

This research makes me very excited for the future of cancer treatment. I’m also thrilled at the prospect of the multi-billion dollar human pharmaceutical industry helping my four-legged patients. Historically, veterinary medicine has mainly received the left-over drugs from human clinical trials. In the future, veterinary cancer drugs may take first priority and lead to human cures. Dog and man; hand in paw; saving each other’s lives.

We already knew we were similar to our canine best friends. This latest research validates just how deep that relationship extends. Our dogs give us so much and ask so little in return. In the future, our ability to help them may ultimately enable us to save ourselves.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Can clinical trials on dogs and cats help people?

Frankie, a 15-year-old brown dachshund with a gray muzzle and tired eyes, rests on a pillow and pink blanket on an exam table at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet). A catheter draws blood from her neck into a gray machine the size of a minifridge, which clicks and whirls as it returns clear fluid to her body through another tube. The dog is strapped down by a red leash, but the restraint hardly seems necessary she looks like she could fall asleep at any moment. At least until veterinary internist J.D. Foster sticks a thermometer in her butt.

A black mass has engulfed Frankie's bottom-right canine tooth—a melanoma that could eventually metastasize. If her owner had taken her to a traditional vet clinic, the doctor would have likely recommended removing part of her jaw, followed by a strong course of chemotherapy. But here at Penn Vet, Foster and his team are trying a new approach: cleaning Frankie's blood with an experimental polymer that removes immune system blockers, which may allow her to better fight the cancer. If the treatment works, it probably won't extend Frankie's life—but it could make her last few months a lot more pleasant. It also just might lead to a new way to combat skin cancer in people, Foster says. He scratches Frankie behind the ears as she closes her eyes on the pillow. "You're a good girl," he coos.

When I get involved in these trials, it's about helping the family. If we're helping the human or the dog, is there really any difference?

Matthew Breen, geneticist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh

Frankie is the third of 13 canines in the study—a clinical trial that's part of a growing push to develop new therapies for people by testing them in sick dogs and cats instead of lab rats or mice. Pets are a better model of human illnesses than rodents, advocates contend: They live in the same environments, sometimes eat the same food, and get many of the same diseases, particularly cancers, that we do. So, the thinking goes, they could hold the key to developing new therapies for humans at a fraction of the normal cost—and potentially yield a trove of new medicines for pets themselves.

"There's an opportunity for everyone to benefit," says Amy LeBlanc, who oversees pet clinical trials at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the director of its Comparative Oncology Program in Bethesda, Maryland. The number of such trials is booming, she notes, with hundreds conducted over the past decade.

Dior the dog receives chemotherapy as part of a clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

But others question whether these studies will really have an impact on human health. "It's a very interesting idea, and it all sounds very nice," says Larry Baker, an oncologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the former chairman of one of the largest human clinical trial organizations in the United States. "But this field has yet to prove itself."

First cancer immunotherapy for dogs developed

The newly developed antibody brings hope for sick dogs. Credit: Michael Bernkopf / Vetmeduni Vienna

Nearly every second dog develops cancer from the age of ten years onward. A few therapies derived from human medicine are available for dogs. A very successful form of therapy by which antibodies inhibit tumor growth has not been available for animals so far. Scientists at the inter-university Messerli Research Institute of the Vetmeduni Vienna, the Medical University of Vienna, and the University of Vienna have developed, for the first time, antibodies to treat cancer in dogs. The scientists published their research data in the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics.

As in humans, cancers in dogs have complex causes. The interaction of the environment, food, and genetic disposition are the most well known factors. Today nearly all methods of human medicine are basically available for dogs with cancer, but this was not true of cancer immunotherapy so far.

So-called cancer immunotherapy - which is the treatment of tumors by the use of antibodies - has been established and used very successfully in human medicine for about 20 years. Since cancer cells bear very specific antigens on the surface, the corresponding antibodies bind to these molecules and thus inhibit tumor growth. The mechanism that becomes effective is a destructive signal sent by the antibody to the inside of the cancer cell and initiates its death. In a second mechanism, the immune system of the patient also destroys the "marked" tumor in a more efficient way.

The target is nearly identical in humans and dogs

Josef Singer and Judith Fazekas, both lead authors of the study, discovered that a receptor frequently found on human tumor cells (epidermal growth factor receptor or EGFR) is nearly 100 percent identical with the EGF receptor in dogs. In human medicine EGFR is frequently used as the target of cancer immunotherapy because many cancer cells bear this receptor on their surface. The so-called anti-EGFR antibody binds to cancer cells and thus triggers the destruction of the cells. "Due to the high similarity of the receptor in humans and dogs, this type of therapy should work well in dogs too," the scientists say. The binding site of the antibody to EGFR in man and dogs differs only in respect of four amino acids.

Antibody trimmed to "dog"

To ensure best possible binding of the antibody to cancer cells in dogs, the human antibody had to be trimmed to "dog" in the laboratory. In human medicine this process is known as the "humanization" of an antibody. The antibody originally produced in the mouse has to be adjusted to the species for which it is used. Singer and Fazekas replaced the corresponding elements in the "humanized" antibody with elements from the dog. In experiments on dog cancer cells in the laboratory it was found that the newly developed antibodies did, in fact, bind to canine cancer cells with greater specificity.

The head of the study, Professor Erika Jensen-Jarolim, explains as follows: "We expect dogs to tolerate these anti-cancer antibodies well. This will be investigated in clinical studies in the future and is expected to greatly improve the treatment as well as the diagnosis of cancer in dogs."

Improvement of diagnosis

The newly developed antibody provides an additional benefit for dogs. As in human medicine, antibodies can be coupled with signal molecules. When the antibody binds to a cancer cell in the organism, the coupled antibody - in this case a radioactive isotope - can be rendered visible and is thus able to show where tumors and even metastases are located. When the selected isotope also contributes to the decay of cancer cells, the approach is known as "theranostics" (therapy and diagnostics).

"The Veterinary Medical University, Vienna will be the first center in the world to offer the most modern immunological cancer diagnosis procedure for dogs. Of special interest to me as a doctor of human medicine is the fact that, by using this approach, we will be able to initiate improvements that will benefit humans as well," says Jensen-Jarolim.

The first anti-EGFR antibody (cetuximab) for cancer treatment in human medicine was developed by the company Merck. In humans it is primarily used for the treatment of bowel cancer. Cancer immunotherapy is mainly applied in combination with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In veterinary medicine, immunotherapy will be employed for the treatment of mammary ridge cancer (milk line cancer) in dogs. It may also be used as part of a combination therapy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will pet insurance cover pre-existing conditions?

There are no pet insurance plans that cover pre-existing conditions. If a condition is diagnosed before your pet insurance kicks in, you’ll need to pay out-of-pocket for the treatment of that condition. This includes congenital conditions that have already been discovered.

However, some plans do cover curable conditions after a certain waiting period with no recurring symptoms!

What is considered a pre-existing condition for pet insurance?

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Lost Pet Statistics: Survey Looks At Likelihood Of Finding A Missing Dog Or Cat

The results of what is believed to be the first published national study on lost pets may surprise you. The actual percentage of cats and dogs reported lost was lower than researchers expected, but the percentage of lost dogs safely returned to their homes was higher than they anticipated.

“There were several surprises from our study,” reports Dr. Emily Weiss, a certified-applied animal behaviorist and vice president of shelter research and development for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “I think we have made an assumption about the stray pets in shelters — assuming that those animals are lost pets with owners that are actively seeking them. While some of those dogs and cats are in fact lost, many of them are likely to be dogs and cats that are truly homeless.”

The ASPCA conducted a survey of 1,015 pet households, and the findings of its five-year effort are published in the June 2012 issue of the journal Animals.

Findings of First National Lost Pet Survey

  • Only 15 percent of pet guardians reported a lost dog or cat in the past five years.
  • Percentages of lost dogs versus lost cats were nearly identical: 14 percent for dogs and 15 percent for cats.
  • 93 percent of dogs and 75 percent of cats reported lost were returned safely to their homes.
  • Only 6 percent of dog owners and 2 percent of cat owners found their lost pets at shelters.
  • 15 percent of dogs were found because they were sporting identification tags or microchips.

Provide Your Cell Phone on Pet's ID Tag

To better the odds of being reunited with their owners, Dr. Weiss advises that pets should be microchipped and wear identification collars with easy-to-read contact information.

“We suggest that the tag should have the cell phone number of the pet parent, the cell number of an emergency contact, the land line of the pet parent, and if the person is comfortable doing so, the street address of their home,” she says.

Dr. Weiss urges owners to begin checking their area animal shelters the first day their pet goes missing. She also recommends bringing in a clear photo of the pet to help officials identify the cat or dog and possibly hasten the reunion.

The information from this study is expected to help ASPCA officials develop programs that may increase the likelihood of owners finding their lost pets.

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