A veterinary surgeon operates on a dog.

Could Dogs Help Find a Cancer Cure?

Dog Cancer Research Could Lead to a Breakthrough

All dog owners agree that their canine companion feels like a part of the family. Dogs and humans have had relationships going back thousands of years, and the bond we share with our best friends isn’t just personal, it’s also biological.

Though most pet parents won’t want to think about their dog getting sick, positive trends have emerged in medical research for dogs and humans suffering from cancer. At the Penn Vet Cancer Center symposium last year, the discovery of the similarities between cancer in humans and cancer in dogs was discussed, with parallels being drawn between canine treatment measures and those used on humans.

Though most cancer research is done by studying the effects of treatment on mice, utilizing dogs is beneficial, since we share so many similarities on a biological level and can better determine a treatment regimen for humans after researching a drug’s effects on dogs.

It is important to note that no dogs are given cancer for the sake of research, and only dogs diagnosed with some form of cancer are being seen at research centers as patients.

This research is so promising because dogs develop cancer naturally over time, just like humans. Also, based on the vast number of dog breeds (roughly 400), researchers are able to identify which breeds are predisposed to certain types of cancer. For example, Golden Retrievers are more likely to be genetically disposed to types of lymphoma. Research has also shown that squamous cell carcinoma often occurs in Standard Poodles, but only if they have black fur. This information allows scientists to further break down the patterns of complex cancers and identify how individual genes are contributing to different forms of the disease.

How does this help humans? Well, cancers that affect specific breeds also affect specific groups of humans. For example, osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer, specifically affects children, as well as large dog breeds like German Shepherds and Great Danes. The similarities here are key to identifying a treatment that can help both dogs and humans recover.

In fact, some of this research is already in progress and getting promising results. At the Penn Vet Cancer Center, Dexter, an Old English Sheepdog, was treated with a new type of immunotherapy that taught his immune system to seek out and destroy anything that looked like bacteria, including his tumor cells. More than five years later, Dexter is still alive and cancer-free.

The success of this specific immunotherapy has shown that dogs that received it were more than twice as likely to survive at least two years compared to dogs that received standard treatment. The success of this treatment has led to its use in treating children with the same type of cancer.

This is just one of the many ways that successful research surrounding cancer in dogs is helping to advance human treatments. And one day, if and when researchers are able to discover a cure, we might just have man’s best friend to thank for it.