When it comes to dog years, cancer can have a big impact. Dogs 10 years and older have a 50% chance of dying from cancer, and human oncologists are studying the disease in canines in the hopes of benefiting both animals and humans.

Josie is back on board, duck hunting with her owner, after undergoing an immunotherapy clinical trial for melanoma.
Josie is back on board, duck hunting with her owner, after undergoing an immunotherapy clinical trial for melanoma.

Thanks to its unique partnership with the country’s top-ranked UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of the few to institutions to study what the National Cancer Institute (NCI) calls comparative oncology.

Now, UC Davis has received the first NCI grant in the country to fund a comparative oncology training program, which was launched on August 1, 2020.

The Ruth L. Kirschstein Institutional National Research Service Award T32 training grant supports institutions developing or enhancing research career development opportunities for pre- and post-doctoral research fellows. In this first-of-its-kind federal grant, more than $2 million has been awarded to UC Davis for a five-year program to train the next generation of comparative oncology researchers.

Curing cancer in people and pets will take collaboration

Josie hunts for a reprieve from cancer

As a bird dog, Josie is one of the best. The nine-year-old chocolate lab goes everywhere with her owner and is a popular guest at the Cordelia Duck Club, tucked away in the Suisun Marsh.

She is very social, extremely good at her sport and would really be missed if she weren’t around.

In June, her devoted owner noticed she was bleeding slightly around her chin. An exam revealed a small growth on the roof of her mouth. Like oral melanoma in humans, Josie’s cancer was aggressive by the time it was discovered.

Josie was given only two to four months to live.

Fortunately for Josie, UC Davis human oncologist Robert Canter and veterinary oncologist Michael Kent had just launched a clinical immunotherapy trial to keep cancers in canines from metastasizing or spreading.

Josie entered the clinical trial and was infused with NK, or natural killer cells, that came from a healthy dog. The NK cells attack tumor cells and prevent them from creating new tumors.

It is too early to tell if the immunotherapy will work for Josie but, six months later, she is back duck hunting.

Josie is doing what she loves, and her family knows they’ve done all they can for a dog who puts a smile on everyone’s faces—especially during visits to the duck club.

When the family dog gets cancer, it can feel as devastating as when any loved one is battling the disease. Giving these companion animals the benefit of cutting-edge research and therapeutics, including clinical trials, not only helps pets live longer—but supports the development of new therapies for both dogs and humans.

UC Davis program directors Xinbin Chen, Michael Kent, and Robert Canter sought the training program grant and say tackling complex cancers across animal and human species presents a rare opportunity for both veterinarians and physicians to play a crucial role in basic and translational research. The goal is to recruit and retain these clinician-scientists to help address a national need for more comparative oncology researchers.

Recruiting diverse training candidates is a major focus

The program will leverage diversity and inclusion recruitment programs at UC Davis as it seeks to draw candidates from underrepresented student populations.

“Oncologists who treat humans and oncologists who treat companion animals have a lot to learn from each other, especially when they come from diverse backgrounds,” said Chen, who teaches at both the veterinary school and the medical school. “We desperately need more research in this area because we think we can solve some of the toughest challenges facing cancer researchers if we join forces.”

Kent, who specializes in veterinary oncology and directs the UC Davis Center for Companion Animal Health, says cancer found in dogs is very similar to  cancer found in humans.

“Dogs have coevolved with humans,” said Kent. “That means they have been exposed to the same environment as humans, including some of the same carcinogens.”

With intact immune systems similar to those of people, dogs can benefit from many of the same cancer treatment breakthroughs as humans, including immunotherapies that work by helping the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells.

“Treating canines with cancer as well as humans facing the devastating disease allows us to take a more holistic approach as we compare immunological responses and the success of various therapies. And, dogs deserve to benefit from cancer trials at UC Davis, too,” said Canter, who is a surgical oncologist at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Canter said comparative oncology represents the best of both medical worlds and is crucial to advancing the understanding of tumor biology, speeding development of therapies and giving hope to patients—whether they are people or pets.