Mark Mamula, a professor of medicine at Yale University, created a cancer vaccine that's designed to prompt the body's immune system to attack tumors. It worked great in mice, but he wanted to see how it would perform in a more realistic model of human cancer, so now he has teamed up with the Veterinary Cancer Center in Norwalk, CT, to test the vaccine in dogs. Mamula hopes the insights from the dog trial will lead to a human trial in a year or so.
Mamula's vaccine is made from synthesized tumor proteins, which are formulated into a vaccine, he told the New Haven Register. Once the vaccine enters the body, the immune system creates antibodies to fight the cancer. More than 15 dogs have been enrolled in the study, which is ongoing. "Much like a human clinic, these dogs are walking in the door with different stages of cancer," Mamula said. "Dog cancers very closely resemble human cancers in many ways."
The Yale study is the latest entrant in a growing area of research called "comparative oncology." The idea is to take pets who naturally develop the same types of cancer that people get, such as melanoma and breast cancer, and enroll them in clinical trials that could result in new therapies for both people and animals. Data from trials in pets such as dogs can be included in packages that researchers submit to the FDA and other regulatory agencies when seeking approval for new human treatments.
The pharmaceutical industry is starting to catch on to the potential of comparative oncology in drug development. Amy LeBlanc, a veterinary oncologist who directs the National Institutes of Health's Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium (COTC) recently told Chemical & Engineering News that big pharma executives are asking to participate in comparative trials because they believe doing so will help facilitate smoother human trials. The companies "have come to us and said, 'We want to get more involved in this because we believe that there's an opportunity for us to succeed if we take this approach and fold it into all the other stuff we do,'" LeBlanc reported.
The COTC is currently sponsoring two trials that could lead to new human therapies, including one that's looking at the potential of three new chemotherapy compounds known as "indenoisoquinolines" in dogs with lymphoma.
One of the colleges that participates in the COTC, Colorado State University, has also launched a separate initiative that promotes comparative research to benefit children with cancer. The school has partnered with a new nonprofit biotech organization called the Children's Cancer Therapy Development Institute, according to the Coloradoan. The institute has planned five clinical trials since it was launched in January, including four related to muscle cancers and one focused on a tumor type that affects the brain stem.
"Pet dogs get cancer for reasons we don't understand, and they're family too," said Charles Keller, director of the Children's Cancer Therapy Development Institute in an interview with the Coloradoan. "Why not take the therapies and offer them to companion pets, hopefully save their lives and in that process find the safest, most effective drugs to put into kids?"