Not only can dogs sniff out cancer in its early stages, but the DNA in their saliva may contain the key to cancer treatments for both humans and canines.
The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) recently created the Canine Hereditary Cancer Consortium, a program that will study DNA and RNA samples in saliva, blood and tumor samples from many breeds of dogs.
The samples, voluntarily donated by dog owners and consenting veterinarians, will be analyzed for genetic patterns associated with cancer. In addition to helping determine if a dog is a carrier of a defective gene, these genetic patterns will also provide information about human cancer.
”Rare diseases in humans also show up in dogs,” Dr. Mark Neff, director of the new program, said in a news release. “By studying the DNA of canines, we expect to more quickly discover the genomic causes of disease and more quickly find ways to better treat dogs, and people.”
The research will be funded by a two-year, $4.3-million federal stimulus grant to the Canine Hereditary Cancer Consortium, which includes TGen and VARI in partnership with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), University of Pennsylvania, Michigan State University, dog breeders and veterinarians. It is also receiving $1 million in grants from pet-care businesses including PetSmart and Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
According to TGen, “the program’s ‘bark-to-bedside’ approach represents an unprecedented alliance of veterinarians, basic scientists and private practice clinicians, non-profit research institutes, universities, industry and government.” Researchers working with NCI experts “will use gene expression profiling to identify genes involved in osteosarcoma to determine if the same genetic markers, alterations, and targets found are also found in human osteosarcoma, and in dogs. Comparing data between humans and dogs has the potential to significantly advance understanding of this cancer.”
The study will focus on sarcomas, which are cancers in connective tissues such as bone, cartilage and fat.
“The sad reality of sarcoma, because it is such a rare human disease, is that very few scientists take the time to do any research on it because it is not possible to get the number of samples you need for those kinds of studies,” said Dr. Nick Duesbery, co-director of VARI’s Center for Comparative Biology and Genetics, in the news release.
The project began with the study of canine hemangiosarcoma (called angiosarcoma in humans), a cancer with no effective treatment. Its tumors, which are extremely malignant, originate in the lining of blood vessels and in the spleen. Although the tumors are rare in humans, they are fairly common in some breeds of dogs, such as Golden Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs and Clumber Spaniels. After as many as 150 years of breeding, these dogs have few genetic variations, which makes it easier to identify the differences that can affect cancer susceptibility and response to drugs.
“Many rare human cancers are very common in dogs,” Dr. Jeffrey Trent, president and research director for TGen and VARI, said in the news release. “We’re excited about the idea that we may be able to identify areas that could be mutually beneficial – that could help the canine patient and can help the human patient with these various cancers.”
The program will also study osteosarcoma, oral melanoma, malignant histiocytosis and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The results will be used to create diagnostic DNA tests for larger groups of dogs that will help researchers look for genes that lead to cancer.
“We’ve got an incredible advantage here with the dogs, because these diseases are much more common in dogs than they are in humans,” Duesbery said. “We can get some insight into the biology. Our strongest hope and desire is that we can translate that into therapies we can use for people.”