Duke University, NC State team up for new canine cancer project

Michael Kastan

Comparative oncology in animal health is gaining traction, with more vets and oncologists teaming up to look at potential cures for cancer in dogs and in some cases, cats. Now doctors at Duke University's The Duke Cancer Institute and NC State University's (NCSU) College of Veterinary Medicine are getting in on the action and partnering for a new initiative that tests cancer treatments in dogs.

The Consortium for Canine Comparative Oncology, or C30, is backed by initial funding from Duke and NCSU, and is shooting to answer important questions in cancer drug development. Cancer experts and companies making the treatments are rolling out new therapeutic approaches for the disease, and researchers should start to compare treatments in humans to treatments in animals other than mice, executive director of Duke Cancer Institute Michael Kastan told The Raleigh News & Observer.

Dogs and humans live in similar environments, whereas mice that get the treatments are usually found in a lab setting. Plus, certain breeds of dogs have a higher incidence of cancer, so scientists can learn more about how the disease affects humans by studying the genetics of those breeds, Kastan said.

C30 also addresses a growing problem in dogs. Half of all canines over the age of 10 will die of cancer, Kastan said, and many owners can't afford pricey new treatments for their pets.

"People want to treat the cancers that occur in their pets, so this is an opportunity to help us learn about how to use these new drugs that are being developed. The dogs will benefit, the owners will benefit and when we take the drugs to humans we'll know a lot more about how to use them," Kastan said.

The team's approach has already worked in the case of one four-legged friend. In 2014, a 13-year-old Labrador retriever named Eliza had her cancer cured during a clinical trial at NCSU's vet school. Vets used a new treatment called Immunolight Therapy to treat Eliza's cancer.

The vets implanted tiny particles into the dog's tumor, then injected her with drugs and small doses of X-rays that convert to UV light. The light activates drugs in the tumor, which triggers an immune response.

About halfway through treatment, Eliza's tumor "literally melted away," NCSU oncologist Dr. Mike Nolan told the News & Observer. A CT scan last fall found no cancer in the dog.

Now, with one clinical trial under their belt, scientists will apply the same treatment in dogs with oral melanoma, a similar disease to mucosal melanoma in humans. "It's very exciting for what it might bring to the pet population and the human cancer population here," Nolan said. "It's exciting for what we might learn globally."

- read the News & Observer story