Fierce Animal Health: Biologists urge Congress to support studies of naturally occurring diseases in dogs

Monday, 7 December 2015

A growing constituency of scientists are supporting the idea that studying naturally occurring diseases in dogs - ranging from cancer to cataracts - will ultimately help find better remedies for both dogs and people. Last month, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) brought that message to the U.S. Congress, sponsoring an educational session designed to bring attention to research that has enhanced the lives of dogs while also advancing new technologies that could help people with a variety of disorders.

Timothy Nichols of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who studies the blood disorder hemophilia, told members of Congress that dogs get the disease too, according to a blog item by Speaking of Research, an advocacy group that supports animal research. Nichols described an experimental form of gene therapy that has extended the lives of some dogs with the disease by over 7 years. He is working on developing the same therapy for people.

Amy LeBlanc, a veterinarian who works for the National Cancer Institute, described the Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium, which oversees clinical trials in pets with cancer that are designed to advance new oncology treatments for people. She explained that because many cancers are similar in dogs and people, and dogs share our environment, they often make ideal models for studying new treatments, according to Speaking of Research. She was followed by Elaine Ostrander, chief of the cancer genetics branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute, who described her work sequencing the canine genome.

In conjunction with the session, FASEB published a fact sheet, which lists a dozen other diseases in people that have naturally occurring counterparts in dogs. They include Alzheimer's disease, heart disease and cleft palate. The group acknowledges that research involving dogs that are kept in laboratories is controversial, but it points out that such studies are rare, closely regulated and planned only when absolutely essential.

That said, there are increasing opportunities for pet dogs to be enrolled in clinical trials run by veterinary hospitals that could end up benefiting both people and pets. Researchers at Michigan State University, for example, are perfecting surgical techniques to repair cleft palates in dogs, as well as studying the genes of pets who develop the condition, so they can help advance treatments in children born with the defect.

Over the summer, National Academies' Institute of Medicine hosted a conference in DC that brought together veterinarians, scientists and drug company executives, who described how companion animals can help bridge the gap between traditional preclinical rodent studies and human trials by providing a more accurate model of how the disease develops, progresses and responds to new therapies.

Some companies are embracing that model, including Australia's Regeneus, which has been testing a personalised cancer vaccine in pet dogs that's made from each patient's tumor cells. The dogs in an early trial significantly outlived their expected survival times, leading the company to announce in June that it was planning a human trial of the same technology.

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