Treating canine cancer

An immunotherapy may prove useful for humans, too.

Alex Eben Meyer

Alex Eben Meyer

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Cancer isn’t just a human disease. Each year, millions of dogs develop potentially fatal tumors. Mark Mamula, a rheumatology researcher at the Yale School of Medicine, knows this firsthand: his dog passed away a decade ago because of inoperable cancer.

Mamula has recently started thinking about dogs as more than just pets. “Dogs get cancers virtually identical to those in humans,” he notes. There is a need for better ways to treat canine and human cancers—and a therapy that works in dogs might give rise to better therapies for humans.

These thoughts inspired him to launch a clinical trial of a new canine cancer immunotherapy. The therapy is an injection containing a piece of a protein, EGFR, often found on tumors. Like a vaccine, EGFR trains the body’s immune system to recognize and attack the tumor cells.

To test the therapy, Mamula partnered with ten sites nationwide. At each site, his team recruited dogs with three specific types of bone, blood vessel, and urinary tract cancers. News quickly spread among dog owners; the trial has around 400 dogs, and 250 of them were recruited in just the last year. “It really exploded,” says Mamula.

The trial is ongoing, but preliminary results are promising. Although the vaccine doesn’t cure every dog, it nearly doubled their chances of surviving for a year and reduced the spread of cancer to the lungs—a particularly deadly feature of some tumors. Mamula notes that the vaccine can have a life-changing impact on a human companion, especially for elderly people living alone or veterans with service dogs.

He has founded a company, TheraJan, to further develop the vaccine, and he has asked USDA to make the vaccine widely available. He hopes it will end up in human clinical trials.   

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