Researchers tap dogs for insights into stopping cancer metastasis

Could the key to finding tumors at their earliest stages lie in tiny blood platelets? A team of researchers at Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine is working to answer that question, with the help of pet dogs who they're treating for cancer at their clinic.

Mississippi State University veterinarian Kari Lunsford

MSU veterinarians Camilo Bulla and Kari Lunsford have formed the Comparative Angiogenesis Laboratory at the school with the goal of understanding how tumors form new blood vessels and how platelets interact with tumor cells to allow cancers to metastasize. The veterinarians plan to use blood samples to examine particular proteins that platelets express to see if they can spot patterns that might help identify cancers earlier, or predict when tumors are likely to spread.

"If treatments are successful and the cancer goes into remission, we would monitor the patient for a relapse of the disease by looking at its platelets," Lunsford told the Mississippi Business Journal last fall. "This type of monitoring would be less invasive than taking biopsies and might also be an earlier indicator that the cancer is returning."

Working with MSU doctoral student Shauna Trichler, the veterinarians developed a new technique for separating platelets from blood samples without risking contamination from other cells. That allowed them to characterize the canine platelet proteome--the entire collection of proteins expressed in the dog's platelets. MSU's platelet-purification method is so innovative scientists all over the country have been contacting the lab for advice, according to Lunsford.

Because dogs and people get many of the same types of cancer, Lunsford and her colleagues believe their research efforts will ultimately boost human oncology research. "When cancers metastasize and spread is when they become life threatening and debilitating," Lunsford told the business journal, adding that in MSU's veterinary clinic she often doesn't see dogs with cancer until their tumors have already advanced to the point where they become harder to treat. "We want to better understand how to diagnose and control those initial tumors and eliminate the risk of metastasis."

Earlier this year, Oregon State University announced that researchers there are using nanotechnology to improve cancer surgery by eliminating malignant cells that remain after the primary tumor is removed. Their technology selectively inserts compounds into cancer cells, which not only helps surgeons visualize tumor margins, but also has the power to kill leftover cancer cells. OSU is currently planning a trial in dogs with malignant tumors.

Dogs are taking an increasingly important role in cancer research, and not just in academia. Several biotech companies are also embracing companion canine research as a way to advance human therapeutics. Blaze Bioscience, for example, completed a successful trial in dogs of its "tumor paint," which is designed to help surgeons better visualize tumor margins, and the company recently won a $1.5 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) to move the product forward in people. And Advaxis ($ADXS) has achieved such encouraging results of its experimental osteosarcoma drug in dogs that it has embarked on a parallel development program in children with the disease.

- here's the Mississippi Business Journal article
- read more about the Oregon State research