Vets and pharma execs gather in DC to trade notes on pets in cancer research

Last week, the National Academies' Institute of Medicine hosted a two-day conference in Washington, DC, to promote the field of "comparative oncology"--translational research in pet dogs and cats that develop cancer naturally and therefore can provide important clues to aid human drug development. The event featured more than two dozen veterinarians and scientists, who covered a range of topics, from canine tumor genetics to appropriate trial design for veterinary clinical trials.

Comparative oncology research is focused around studying tumors in pet dogs and cats that are similar to cancers that occur in people, including breast cancer, osteosarcoma, and lymphoma. Companion animals can be an important bridge between the traditional rodent models that are used in preclinical studies and human trials of new drugs and devices--products that may end up being useful for treating both pets and people with cancer.

Many of the speakers at the event were academic veterinarians, but the pharma industry was also well represented. On the first day, AstraZeneca's ($AZN) Carl Barrett, who leads the company's translational sciences group, moderated a panel on integrating biomarker development into clinical trials that include pets. During Barrett's introduction, he noted that many drugs fail because of a lack of understanding of pharmacodynamics--the science of how cancer drugs act in the body.

Dog trials could be important for finding and studying biomarkers of pharmacodynamic activity, he said. Such research marks "a huge area of unmet need for the pharma company and I think an opportunity … for drug development," Barrett said.

The event concluded with a panel discussion about the status of comparative oncology in drug development, featuring speakers from Achaogen ($AKAO), MEI Pharma ($MEIP), and Gilead Sciences ($GILD). Daniel Tumas, a senior director at Gilead, described an effort at the company to evaluate an experimental molecule to treat blood cancers that was known to work well in dogs but not rodents. Gilead decided to test the drug in dogs with canine non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

"We looked at the canine NHL model as a really significant way to ethically impact and potentially benefit canine patients, as well as help us understand how the molecule might benefit human patients," Tumas said.

And it's not just dogs who can participate in comparative oncology research. Cats are also useful, particularly in studying breast cancer. "When cats develop mammary cancer, it is much more malignant, similar to double- or triple-negative cancers in women," said Rodney Page, director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University, in an interview with Smithsonian prior to the DC event. "It's an opportunity to identify new strategies."

Comparative oncology has been gaining steam over the past few years, as veterinarians have found their scientific endeavors to be of growing interest to human-oncology researchers. At the recent conference of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), for example, researchers from Colorado State University presented a gene expression model that predicts how dogs with osteosarcoma will respond to the chemo drug doxorubicin. They proposed that a similar model might work in human cancer patients. More recently, the Morris Animal Foundation had a paper published in a medical journal about its Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, a 15-year project aimed largely at identifying risk factors for cancer.

- access videos from the comparative oncology conference here
- read more at Smithsonian