The past few years have seen huge advances in the field of immuno-oncology, with the approval of drugs such as Bristol-Myers Squibb’s ($BMY) Opdivo (nivolumab), which inhibits an immune “checkpoint,” freeing up patients’ immune systems to fight their cancer. Now, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) wants to encourage oncologists from human and veterinary medicine to work together to develop immunotherapy treatments--and to study whether such drugs might also benefit dogs with cancer.
On June 13, the NCI will begin accepting research grant proposals for studies designed to expand the knowledge of canine cancer immunotherapy. The goal is to understand how tumors interact with immune cells in dogs, specifically as it pertains to the effectiveness of therapies that combine immune-modulating drugs with other types of cancer medicines, such as chemotherapy, according to a call for proposals issued by the agency.
The NCI notes that the results of the studies will no doubt benefit people because of the similarities between cancer in dogs and humans. “[T]he complexity of canine tumors in terms of heterogeneity, their relationship to the tumor microenvironment, and the development of resistance to treatment are closely related to cancer in human patients,” the institute writes in the call for proposals. That makes dogs better models for human cancers than laboratory rodents, it adds.
There is growing support in the medical community for recruiting pet dogs with cancer into clinical trials meant to help people, too. Last summer, the National Academies' Institute of Medicine hosted a conference in Washington, DC, to promote such research, which is often referred to as "comparative oncology." Several veterinary schools have launched comparative trials in recent years, often working with pharmaceutical companies that want to test new ideas in companion animals that develop cancer naturally.
And some animal health companies have been so encouraged by immunotherapy drugs in people with cancer that they have started developing similar products for pets. In May, Nexvet ($NVET) partnered with Japan’s Zenoaq to develop drugs that inhibit the immune checkpoint PD-1 in dogs.
Veterinarians are encouraged by the NCI’s support of cancer research in dogs. “One of the major gaps that exist in studying cancer is the characterization of the immune system in dogs that have cancer,” said Rodney Page, director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University, in an article posted on the school’s website. The NCI’s funding, he said, “will help close this gap.”
The NCI is asking scientists to submit proposals for studies involving any one of 6 canine cancers: B-cell lymphoma, melanoma, bladder cancer, osteosarcoma, glioma and breast cancer. The institute expects to begin awarding grants on August 15.
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