Awareness builds for what we can learn by studying animal cancers

The Colorado Cancer Plan, unveiled earlier this year, includes a section on comparative oncology, a field that integrates cancers in veterinary patients with general studies of cancer biology and treatment.

It’s a historic first that shines a spotlight on the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University. It’s also a nod to increasing awareness about the ability to learn more about cancers in humans by studying companion animals with cancer.

Dogs and humans are 85 percent genetically identical, and almost 400 diseases affect both species in the same way. Animals naturally develop cancer, including brain tumors, lymphoma, bone cancers (known as osteosarcoma) and melanoma.

Duffy the Golden Retriever
Duffy was treated with radiation and chemotherapy for osteosarcoma, allowing him to serve as “best man” in his owners’ wedding.

If we’re treating pets for cancer, could we uncover new information that could help human patients? The answer, CSU veterinarians say, is “yes.”

Colorado’s Emily Brown and her family learned about a cancer drug that was being studied with dogs at CSU in the 1990s. She was only 11 and a patient at Children’s Hospital Colorado when she received a terminal cancer diagnosis in 1997. She had osteosarcoma.

Cancer in Pets: Key facts

  • Cancer is the leading cause of death in pets beyond middle age
  • 50 percent of cancer in pets is manageable or curable with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination
  • 1 in 4 dogs and 1 in 5 cats will develop cancer in its lifetime

Source: Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University

Dr. Rodney L. Page, Professor of Oncology and Director of the CSU Animal Cancer Center with the Golden Retriever Winston. December 17, 2012
Dr. Rodney L. Page, Professor of Oncology and Director of the CSU Animal Cancer Center with the Golden Retriever Winston.

Brown’s physician, Dr. Lia Gore, worked with CSU’s Dr. Stephen Withrow, founder of the Flint Animal Cancer Center. A new treatment developed for dogs with bone cancer showed promise, and Brown received the drug on a compassionate-use basis (since it was not yet approved for use in humans by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration). She has said she believes it saved her life.

“Cancer is cancer,” said Dr. Rodney Page, CSU professor and director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center. “The same mechanisms that result in cancer in humans are operative in dogs, and are operative in other animals as well. The aspect that is valuable — and I believe will continue to grow in its value — is the information that can be gathered through well-done clinical studies in companion animals with naturally occurring cancers.”

Page said that there’s been increasing activity and appreciation for the topic within the last year.

In June 2015, a CSU team led a first-of-its-kind comparative oncology workshop for government regulators, medical doctors and veterinarians. The event was hosted by the National Cancer Policy Forum, which is part of the Institute of Medicine.

Page, who holds the Stephen Withrow Presidential Chair in Oncology at CSU, said veterinarians and oncology experts at the university will soon meet to discuss what’s transpired since the workshop. “There are lots of opportunities that have arisen that wouldn’t have existed without the IOM workshop,” he said.

As further proof that acceptance is growing, the National Cancer Institute recently issued a request for research proposals in canine immunotherapy from designated cancer centers and veterinary medical colleges.

“It’s the first time I can remember a request for proposals to study canine cancer specifically,” Page noted. “One of the major gaps that exist in studying cancer is the characterization of the immune system in dogs that have cancer. This will help close this gap.”

Rod Page Dan Theodorescu Feb 2016
Dr. Page and Dr. Dan Theodorescu, director of CU Cancer Center, at the Colorado State Capitol.

Page and Dr. Dan Theodorescu, director of the University of Colorado Comprehensive Cancer Center, provided briefings on their collaborative work during the recent legislative session in Colorado.

Rep. Joann Ginal, vice-chair of the Health, Insurance and Environment committee and a member of the Public Healthcare and Human Services committee, said the testimonies from the doctors were eye-opening to some of her peers. She’s been familiar with the concept for several years now, after meeting Page.

“My colleagues in the House Joint Health committees were very surprised and impressed at the collaborative work being done between veterinary medicine and medical research,” Ginal said. “They have a great respect and understanding of these collaborative programs and the way we can approach clinical trials for our pets and for patients in new drug discovery.”

Colorado Rep. Joann Ginal
Cancer research being conducted in Colorado has “limitless potential” and is both unique and cutting-edge, said Rep. Joann Ginal.

Cancer research being conducted in Colorado has “limitless potential” and is both unique and cutting-edge, she added.

“The Cancer Center Consortium should be a model that could be adopted by other states that could work together not just in new research for cancer cures, but in other areas such as diabetes, cardiovascular and neurological disease states,” Ginal said.

Theodorescu said the research and work that’s being done is transformational. “This arrangement enables a collaborative nexus of scientists and clinicians with varied, synergistic and complementary expertise that together can transform cancer medicine and serve as a model for interdisciplinary research and training,” he said.

The CU-led Cancer Center Consortium has nearly 400 members, including CSU, CU Boulder and CU Denver, University of Colorado Hospital, Children’s Hospital Colorado and Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Ginal, who has a doctorate in reproductive endocrinology from CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, represents eastern and central Fort Collins and parts of unincorporated Larimer County.