NIH leads effort to translate cancer immunology discoveries in dogs to people

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The NIH awarded $500,000 to Baylor to fund cancer immunology research in dogs.

Immuno-oncology--the effort to boost the immune system’s ability to fight cancer--is among the hottest areas of cancer research, and it has already yielded a handful of blockbuster drugs. But some patients don’t respond well to treatment, and scientists still don’t quite understand why. To help improve the understanding of the immune system, as well as the therapies being developed to engage it in the fight against cancer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding a major study in pet dogs that have naturally occurring tumors.

The NIH recently awarded a $500,000 grant to fund the research, which is led by Jonathan Levitt, associate professor of pathology and immunology at Baylor University. Levitt will work with veterinarians at Texas A&M, the University of Florida, the Animal Medical Center of New York and the Technical University of Denmark to try to better understand how cancer interacts with the immune system of dogs. Their ultimate goal is to determine whether that interaction is similar to what happens in people. If it is, dogs that develop cancer naturally could someday be included in clinical trials of new immuno-oncology treatments for people.

“The dog as model of human cancer offers a number of advantages for testing therapeutics,” said Levitt in a press release from Baylor. “Dogs have a long lifespan, they are genetically diverse and we believe their immune systems may work similarly to that of people.”

The researchers plan to genetically sequence bladder, mammary and skin tumors from dogs and compare the mutations they find to known mutations in human cancers. They will also study immune cells found in dog tumors and compare them to what’s seen in comparable human cancers. Understanding the types of immune cells that are naturally able to infiltrate tumors may help predict which types of tumors will respond to specific therapies, according to Baylor.

In June, the NIH’s National Cancer Institute began accepting research grant proposals for projects related to canine cancer immunology. The organization said it was particularly interested in increasing the understanding of how tumors interact with immune cells and how that may influence both immune-modulating drugs and more traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy.

It’s part of a larger movement to include pets in cancer research that could translate to better therapies for people. Last year, the National Academies' Institute of Medicine organized a conference that brought together academic veterinarians with oncology researchers from such companies as AstraZeneca ($AZN) and Gilead Sciences ($GILD). They discussed the potential for dogs trials to help improve the understanding of pharmacodynamics--the science of how drugs act in the body.

On the flip side, some animal health companies are looking into the possibility of translating advances in human immuno-oncology to pets. In May, Nexvet ($NVET) partnered with Japan’s Zenoaq to develop drugs for dogs that inhibit PD-1, the immune “checkpoint” that is the target of drugs now being used to treat some patients with melanoma, lung cancer and other tumor types.

Baylor’s Levitt believes the dogs that participate in the NIH-funded study stand to benefit. “If it works out, this will be a win-win opportunity for both human and veterinary medicine,” he said. “We can gain valuable insights into novel human cancer therapeutics while providing life-saving cancer treatment for pet dogs for whom successful cancer therapies may not exist.”

- here’s the release

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