It could be that man’s best friend might one day be man’s best healer.
Dogs are among the best animals when it comes to providing models for better medical treatments in humans, and with more than 77 million dogs in the United States alone, it’s another way the human-animal bond has become closer than anyone had ever dreamed. Researchers at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences are looking into ways how dogs – and several other animal types – can provide a variety of medical benefits to people, ranging from bone cancer studies to spinal cord injuries and others.
“Dogs can be ideal models to study,” says Theresa Fossum, director of the Texas A&M Institute for Preclinical Studies.
“This is especially true when it comes to certain types of cancer. Cancers in dogs, such as bone cancer, lymphoma and many other types of tumors, are almost identical to those same kinds found in humans and they tend to develop faster and run their course quicker, so it’s an ideal way to see if a certain therapy will work. Dogs also tend to be better predictors of how new cancer drugs and medical devices can work. By studying cancer treatments in dogs, we can come up with better and more improved ways to treat cancer in humans and animals.”
Bone cancer in dogs, Fossum explains, is almost identical to human bone cancer. To get a big picture of just how the disease forms and progresses in dogs, Fossum has helped to create the Texas Veterinary Cancer Registry, a database of treatment information.
“We want to get the word out to dog owners that this service is available and it can help their pet and quite possibly, their next door neighbor one day,” she adds. “There is no charge to register your dog and we encourage pet owners to do this. The information we get can be very useful in canine treatments.
“People may not know it, but it costs $3 billion and up for a drug to be created and tested in many trials before it is offered to the public. With more information, we believe it’s possible to cut those drug development costs way down.”
Cancer is no stranger to dogs – in fact, about 1 in every 4 dogs will eventually get it, and breeds such as Boxers and Golden Retrievers are especially prone to bone cancer, she adds. “Larger dogs are more likely to develop certain cancers, but any dog – or cat – can suffer from the disease,” she notes.
Treatments, as in humans, can be very expensive, with costs easily ranging from $5,000-$10,000 and up, “but it’s possible some cases can be paid for if they are eligible for study in a clinical trial. Also, by getting more information on dogs who suffer from cancer, we can learn better ways to fight the disease and hopefully one day the costs will go down dramatically,” Fossum says.
Fossum adds that eventually, she would like to develop a similar program to find treatments for other diseases that dogs and humans share such as diabetes and heart and kidney disease.
Pet owners – and even other veterinarians – are encouraged to register their dogs in the program.
Jonathan Levine, an assistant professor in the Small Animal Clinic who specializes in spinal cord injuries, agrees that dogs with naturally occurring diseases may offer promise in advancing human therapies. He has received a $900,000 Department of Defense grant to develop non-invasive treatments and therapies for spinal cord injuries in dogs.
“We hope the results will translate into successful therapies and treatments for humans – that’s our goal,” he says.
"Since most of these injuries happen naturally, they are more diverse," he notes "The affected dogs are out in the environment, they're not all the same breed, and the injuries don't happen the same way. So the diversity probably gives a little advantage exploring theories into the possible treatment of dogs and humans with similar spinal cord injuries.”
He adds that the Defense Department was particularly interested in this type of research because of the possible implications it may have on troops with spinal cord injuries. Such injuries in humans can be physically debilitating, and also incredibly expensive. Studies show that a person who has sustained a spinal cord injury at age 25 may face medical expenses of $729,000 to $3.2 million over a lifetime.
Levine says clinical trials will be performed on young dogs who suffer from a severe disk problem called canine thoracolumbar intervertebral disk herniation, a disease that is very similar to spinal cord injuries in humans. Dachsunds appear to suffer from the disease most often, and this breed will represent about half of the cases.
Other veterinarians, such as oncology specialist Heather Wilson-Robles, are conducting similar research with human-animal connections. Her work involves lymphoma, melanoma, mammary and other types of cancer and canine tumors, and it has been funded several times by the American Kennel Club and the National Institutes for Health.
“In many cases, the cancers we see in dogs are almost identical to those in humans, so dogs are a great predictor for us,” she explains. “For example, bone cancer in children and dogs is very similar – it results in about a 90 percent chance of death in a dog, and about 60 percent in children.
“Melanoma in dogs is usually not caused by sunshine, but the behavior of the cancer is similar in both humans and dogs,” she adds. “With mammary cancer, women get breast cancer, dogs get mammary cancer and the two are very alike. We know that not having children increases the risk in both species.”
She and Levine have created a website detailing clinical trials they have conducted.
Levine says that the type of research “we do involves a lot of trial and error, many times over,” he notes.
“It’s like Thomas Edison and the thousands of attempts he made before he got the light bulb to work. With dogs, spinal cord injuries are much like those in people – the damage is the same, the MRIs we do on both look pretty much the same, and on and on.
“In the last 10 to 15 years, there has been very limited success in treating these types of injuries. But we think a major breakthrough is possible in the years to come, and again, our ultimate goal is to see if what we do is successful in dogs, it can also be successful in humans.”