Calling on canines for cancer clues

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 © JGI/Blend Images/Corbis

© JGI/Blend Images/Corbis

If slobbery kisses and adoring tail wags weren’t enough to secure dogs’ reputation as man’s best friend, a new initiative from some creative cancer researchers may do just that. By recruiting pet dogs with naturally occurring cancers into clinical trials, oncologists may be able to develop treatments that could eventually be used effectively in humans as well. In a paper published this week in the Public Library of Science’s open-access journal PLoS Medicine, a group of researchers at the National Cancer Institute make the case for recruiting dogs for cancer research trials, pointing out the many similarities in the progression of cancers in humans and canines—similarities that often cannot be recreated in mice in the lab. “Similar environmental, nutrition, age, sex, and reproductive factors lead to tumor development and progression in human and canine cancers,” they write. “They share similar features such as histologic appearance, tumor genetics, biological behavior, molecular targets, therapeutic response, and unfortunately, acquired resistance, recurrence, and metastasis.”

The initiative, which builds on a decades-long history of comparative oncology—or looking to animals for clues to how to battle cancer in humans—is organized through the National Cancer Institute’s Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium. Currently the research program involves 18 different veterinary institutions across the U.S. Additionally, the Canine Comparative Oncology & Genomics Consortium, a secondary organization that will run a tissue bank for canine tumors, among other things, was recently created as part of the project.

Of course, the long-term goal is to improve cancer outcomes for humans, but in the meantime, the researchers say, the project is already drawing interest from dog owners with a more immediate goal of helping their pets beat the disease—many of whom find solace in the fact that their personal pet struggle could lead to future cancer breakthroughs for canines and humans alike.