Clinical trials in pets pose both challenges and opportunities

Late last year, Connecticut-based Kolltan Pharmaceuticals ran a clinical trial in pet dogs that showed its drug, KTN0158, substantially shrank mast cell tumors, a common form of canine skin cancer. The company went on to start human trials of the drug, which targets KIT, a gene that drives several types of cancer.

"The dog trial had a dramatic impact on our strategy to develop this product for people," Jerry McMahon, the company’s president, told Science magazine. And Kolltan’s human trials were launched just a few months after 200 veterinarians, physicians, pharmaceutical companies and regulators met in Washington, D.C., to have a workshop on how clinical trials in pets can contribute to human health--a meeting that spawned new collaborations aimed at making pet clinical trials part of mainstream drug development, Science reports.

That meeting, which was sponsored by the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, helped ease worries in the pharmaceutical industry that if they try their experimental drugs in pets and run into problems, they might struggle to continue to develop them for people, according to Science. Since the gathering, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has become more involved in promoting pet trials, announcing in April a plan to fund partnerships between scientists and veterinarians that are aimed at improving the biology of dog cancer.

In 2017, the National Cancer Institute’s Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium, a network of veterinary schools that run cancer trials in pets that are aimed at producing new remedies for people, will release data from a 160-dog study of osteosarcoma, Science reports. And in June, the American Veterinary Medical Association created a searchable database of clinical trials for pet owners who want to enroll their dogs or cats in research studies.

It’s not just cancer research that may benefit from trials in pets. The University of Georgia in Athens is investigating an electronic nerve stimulator for treating epilepsy in dogs, according to Science. At Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, veterinarians are investigating stem cells as a treatment for dry eyes. And the University of Minnesota veterinary school has two different trials underway to test new anti-inflammatories for osteoarthritis pain.

There are still challenges to overcome, however, not the least of which is a lack of funding. Government agencies such as the NIH still pour far more money into rodent trials than they do into pet studies, even though mice and rats are often not as  realistic models for human diseases as dogs and cats are. The lack of government money forces veterinarians to seek out grants from animal-focused nonprofits, Science reports.

The funding challenge is compounded by the fact that veterinary trials can be expensive. "Doing a clinical trial in dogs is 10 times cheaper than doing it in humans, but 10 times more expensive than doing it in rats,” Dottie Brown, the director of the Veterinary Clinical Investigations Center at University of Pennsylvania, told Science.

Supporters of comparative oncology and other translational research hope that as more of these studies translate to successful therapies for people, more deep-pocketed investors will step up to fund them. Even if experimental treatments work great in pets but not people, that could yield better products for veterinary medicine, proponents argue. “If we save these dogs, it has an impact on every single family that owns a dog," Matthew Breen, a geneticist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, told Science.

- here’s the Science story

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