Dogs, humans attack cancer — together

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SALT LAKE CITY — It appears dogs and humans are much more alike genetically than we believed, and what's saving their lives could save our lives as well. In fact, researchers are "going to the dogs," so to speak, to form a unique partnership.

And why shouldn't they?

The lifelong bonding between humans and dogs is eloquent. We love them as members of our families. Their loyalty to us is boundless. And now, that bond goes much deeper.

At Cottonwood Animal Hospital, Heidi Richmond's dog Grizz is being treated with a vaccine that's a form of immunotherapy. The treatment is approved only for oral melanomas in dogs, but designed from human genetics. Veterinarian Nathan Cox says this kind of match-up intrigues researchers.

"The genetics of cancer in dogs is very similar to what it is in people, " he said. "That allows us a baseline to be able to study cancer in an alternate species."

For Grizz and other dogs with cancer this human genetic product is different enough to trigger an immune response but similar enough to the dogs own melanoma to cross react — training the immune system to attack the cancer cells.

"We have dogs living out past three to four years with the vaccine, so it's more than doubled survival times and in some dogs," Cox said. "It's actually resulted in a cure for their disease."

"What we were told is that it was a very aggressive melanoma and it would have spread relatively quickly," Richmond said. "I'm thrilled with Grizz's progress. It's been almost two years and he's doing beautifully."

Following surgery to remove a melanoma and its spread into a lymph node, Shannon Whitlow's dog is in the early stages of treatment with the melanoma vaccine. Though costly, Whitlow said the decision for him was easy.

She's basically like family. I don't have children so she's like my kid. When they said that's her only chance, it's a hundred percent fatal (without treatment), I just said let's do it.

–Shannon Whitlow

"She's basically like family. I don't have children so she's like my kid," he said. "When they said that's her only chance, it's a hundred percent fatal (without treatment), I just said let's do it."

This remarkable human genetic product, approved only for dogs, has worked so well that it will soon move into clinical trials for humans.

It's estimated more than 50 percent of all dogs will develop some kind of cancer over their lifetimes, and 1 in 4 will die. Now surviving because this pharmaceutical tradeoff between humans and dogs is paying off for both species. Though dogs live shorter lives, compressed life spans, they develop cancer at the same rate as humans, so treatment outcomes are measured over shorter periods of time.

The data collected is not just for melanomas. According to Cox, the genes expressed in bone cancer in dogs is similar to the genes expressed in mammary cancer in humans. Because the rate of bone cancer in dogs is so high, it's a perfect path to study mammary cancer in people. The list goes on.

"I have friends who have had melanomas removed," Whitlow said. "My dad had one removed. I work in the sun. I'm at risk was well. I think it's awesome if dogs can help people combat this cancer and others cancers too."


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Ed Yeates


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