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A patient at the College of Veterinary Medicine gets a chemotherapy treatment. The relatively new field of comparative oncology looks at how cancer treatments for companion animals can help humans.
Comparative oncology: pets help people in the fight against cancer
By Lynette Lamb
From M, summer 2004
Many animal lovers feel there is a certain sympathy between them and their pets, a sympathy that transcends species. They may be more right than they know-the field of comparative oncology is based on similarities between dogs and cats and humans as they apply to cancer. Now the University of Minnesota is poised to become a leader in that field, thanks in part to a generous gift to the College of Veterinary Medicine that will fund an endowed faculty chair in comparative oncology. The donors of that gift, Alvin and June Perlman, have themselves benefited from the expertise of vet school faculty. The Minnetonka couple spent years raising show poodles. When a favorite dog named Pixie was found to have an oral cancer, the Perlmans' vet suggested that they put her to sleep. A second vet, however, told them that radical surgery followed by radiation might save the animal, and suggested the University of Minnesota as the place to go. And so the Perlmans found themselves at the University's vet clinic. The result? "Pixie lived another five years, and ended up dying of something completely unrelated," says Alvin. While accompanying their dog to her cancer treatments, the Perlmans became interested in the cancer research of veterinary school dean Jeffrey Klausner--then their pet's oncologist--and others. "The fact that the treatments they were working on would benefit humans as well was always very important to us," says June. Among the cancers shared by humans and dogs is bone cancer, which mostly strikes children and large breeds such as Great Danes and Bull Mastiffs. "The natural course in dogs is quite similar to that in humans," says Klausner. Finding new treatments for dogs, then, could dramatically extend the lives of these children. A particularly lethal cancer which both dogs and humans contract is gastric, or stomach, cancer, most often found in Chows. By attempting to understand which genes are involved in causing gastric cancer, scientists hope to get clues as to its genetic origin in humans. Says Klausner, "The whole genetic makeup of humans versus animals is not as different as most people think."
"The whole genetic makeup of humans versus animals is not as different as most people think," says vet school dean Jeffrey Klausner.A significant benefit of studying cancers in companion animals is that treating and studying a cancer that has formed spontaneously in a dog is far superior to studying experimentally induced cancers in lab mice. "All too often, treatments that have worked in lab mice haven't worked when we've taken them to human clinical trials," he says. "This model is much closer to human disease." Although companion animals are the first to receive these cancer treatments, comparative oncology shouldn't be confused with other forms of animal experimentation. First, as Klausner points out, these animals have no other good treatment options. Second, the owners must always provide informed consent. And third, once most pet owners realize a cancer treatment could cure their pet as well as contribute to human health, they get very excited, says Klausner. Filling the Alvin S. and June Perlman Chair in Animal Oncology is a top priority right now toward strengthening the comparative oncology program. The position was advertised this spring, and Klausner hopes the job will be filled within the year. Doing so will mean earning "the recognition that we're a leader in comparative oncology," says Klausner. "We have a great cancer center and a great vet school, and this chair will facilitate them working together." As for the Perlmans, whose gift made this possible, well, their hopes are a bit more ambitious, perhaps reflecting the confidence they feel in the university that once cured their dog. "We would like to see a cure for cancer in our lifetime," says Alvin. "Not just for animals, but for humans, too."