The V Foundation for Cancer Research recently awarded three Comparative Oncology Research Consortium (CORC) grants of $500,000 each to canine comparative oncology research, a field of study designed to explore similarities and differences between human and canine cancers.

DocWire News spoke to Carole Wegner, PhD, HCLD, Vice President of Research and Grants Administration for the V Foundation, to further discuss these grants and the topic of canine comparative oncology.

Here’s what she had to say.

DocWire News: Can you talk to us about the three Comparative Oncology Consortium grants you awarded for canine comparative oncology?

Dr. Carole Wegner: These big $1.5 million investment that you just mentioned, is, actually, for three different grants in the Canine Comparative Oncology space. And that’s part of a larger investment of over $5 million in this area. So, we’re really committed to this approach, and I’m excited to tell you a little bit more about it. So, I don’t know if… Almost everyone has been touched by cancer, and that happens to you, or your family, or someone you care about, the drugs to cure them can’t come soon enough. And that’s one problem we have right now, is that a lot of drugs that look really good in the early stages seen in mice, just don’t pan out in humans. And part of the reason for this is, because a mouse is not a human. And when you’re using a research animal, you’re inducing the cancer. It’s not spontaneous. The immune system is, usually, not intact. It’s not a good match for a human situation.

So, one thought is that… And I don’t know if most people know this. If you have a dog that’s had cancer, and you sought treatment for it, you would have gone to a veterinary hospital. You would have, actually, had a canine oncologist, or radiation oncologists work with you. There are clinical trials in dogs, there’s all this infrastructure to take care of cancer in dogs. That also exists on the human side. So, we have this infrastructure in place. And so, the thought is why can’t we work with these two… Caring for both these types of patients in parallel. What can we learn about clinical trials in dogs that we can apply to humans? Or what have we found out about humans that can also help our dog patients, or our pets?

So, why dogs, you might ask? Well, dogs and humans are, actually, 85% genetically similar. So, even though we don’t look alike, there’s an underlying genetic similarity. And that can reveal itself in a lot of different ways. So, osteosarcoma is one I like to talk about, because that’s a bone cancer. And if a pathologist takes tumor tissue from a human, and tumor tissue from a dog in osteosarcoma, they can’t tell them apart under a microscope, they’re so identical.

Other ways in which dog and human cancers can be similar is same genetic mutations. Cancer cells can respond to treatment the same. How cancer cells evade treatment is something that may be similar. How cancer cells become cancerous. So, what are the exposures, like environmental exposures? And that’s interesting with dogs, because dogs and humans together. So, we might be exposed to the same type of carcinogens. So, there’s another whole avenue of treatment where we’re this similarity, and coexistence can be leveraged to help both species. And also, for diagnosis. What can we learn about diagnosing cancer in a dog that we could apply to human, or vice versa?

First step of research, I should say, is figuring out how dog and human cancers are the same. So, we funded a lot of research at the V Foundation to look at that. In fact, since 2016, we’ve invested over $5 million in Canine Comparative Oncology. And, initially, we supported a local program between Duke Cancer Institute, which is an NCI-Designated Cancer Center, and the North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine. And they’ve formed a consortium for Canine Comparative Oncology, or c3o. And we funded their program. And within that program, they funded several dozen pilot programs to answer the question, “Hey, we’re seeing this in dog. Can we learn from this in human, or vice versa?” Just to identify which cancers are more similar, and could benefit from this approach, which is a big question. Because, it’s not identical across the board. For some cancers, this is identical. That’s different. This phase of the cancer may be more identical at the first phase, but then, by the time the cancers has metastasized, it doesn’t look the same anymore.

So, a lot of understanding how we can help people and pets. And what research will work, is to figure out where those parallels lie. So, that’s step one. So, we funded a lot of that with the c3o initiative here, locally. Just this year, and those three grants that you mentioned, there was a larger consortium that was funded called the Comparative Oncology Research Consortium, or CORK for short. And that’s, actually, a much larger partnership. It includes NC State, and Duke Cancer Institute, but there are also another five partnerships across the country where NCI-Designated Cancer Centers already have a relationship with the veterinary hospitals. So, we’re really proud of these.

The most recent grants we funded. There were three, $500,000 grants to CORK members. So, two of them went to University of Minnesota, and one went to the University of Colorado. And all of those three grants happen to be in the area of immunotherapy. And one of them in glioblastoma, which is brain cancer, and the other one a bone cancer, and the third one that should benefit sarcomas. So, we’re excited about this approach. We really hope it will accelerate drug development. Another encouraging thing for us is that the FDA has started to look at these canine outcomes from clinical trials, and started to use that data as, “Okay, this looks promising enough that we’ll let you start a human trial. On top of the mouse evidence, this dog evidences is confirming for us that this is likely to work in humans.”

DocWire News: What’s the mortality rate of canine cancer compared to human cancer?

Dr. Carole Wegner: Well, it’s really high. About one million dogs are treated for cancer every year. And cancer kills about half of the dogs that are over 10 years old. And about one third of the younger dogs. So, it’s maybe the most common reason that we lose our pets, through cancer. So yeah, it’s very common.

DocWire News: What’s the overall impact canine comparative oncology research can have on humans and dogs alike?

Dr. Carole Wegner: Well, the promise of this approach is that it can accelerate drug development, shortening the time to treatments. So, we really think that this parallel learning from human cancer research, and canine cancer research will help both pets and people. The other thing is, since pets live decades less than humans, the other thing we think about a lot at the V Foundation, is survivorship. So, just because something cures you, doesn’t mean that you live happily ever after. You can have long-term side effects from the treatment, could be cardiac, could be mental, all kinds of things, that you would rather not have. So, the thing about the dog trials, since a dog’s life is so short. You’ll see a signal maybe earlier, if you see a side effect in a dog.

So, you’re going to see it months down the road, not years down the road. And that’d be like an early warning that, “Okay, we need to be aware of this. We need to figure out if we can tweak the treatment, so it doesn’t cause this side effect. Or we need to just not do this.” So, that’s another thing. So, almost every part of cancer treatment, diagnosis, prevention, and long-term survival, I imagine, any of those could be impacted through this approach. We have funded things within all of those spaces. So, we’re hopeful that this will accelerate what we can do for both dogs, and people.