Imagine a 60-year-old man recuperating at home after prostate cancer surgery, drawing comfort from the aged golden retriever beside him. This man might know that a few years ago the director of the National Cancer Institute issued a challenge to cancer re?searchers, urging them to find ways to "eliminate the suffering and death caused by cancer by 2015." What he probably does not realize, though, is that the pet at his side could be an important player in that effort.
Reaching the ambitious Cancer 2015 goal will require the application of everything in investigators' tool kits, including an openness to new ideas. Despite an unprecedented surge in researchers' understanding of what cancer cells can do, the translation of this knowledge into saving lives has been unacceptably slow. Investigators have discovered many drugs that cure artificially induced cancers in rodents, but when the substances move into human trials, they usually have rough sledding. The rodent models called on to mimic human cancers are just not measuring up. If we are going to beat cancer, we need a new path to progress.
Now consider these facts. More than a third of American households include dogs, and scientists estimate that some four million of these animals will be diagnosed with cancer this year. Pet dogs and humans are the only two species that naturally develop lethal prostate cancers. The type of breast cancer that affects pet dogs spreads preferentially to bones--just as it does in women. And the most frequent bone cancer of pet dogs, osteosarcoma, is the same cancer that strikes teenagers.
Researchers in the emerging field of comparative oncology believe such similarities offer a novel approach for combating the cancer problem. These investigators compare naturally occurring cancers in animals and people--exploring their striking resemblances as well as their notable differences.
Right now comparative oncologists are enlisting pet dogs to tackle the very obstacles that stand in the way of achieving the Cancer 2015 goal. Among the issues on their minds are finding better treatments, deciding which doses of medicines will work best, identifying environmental factors that trigger cancer development, understanding why some individuals are resistant to malignancies and figuring out how to prevent cancer. As the Cancer 2015 clock keeps ticking, comparative oncologists ask, Why not transform the cancer toll in pet dogs from something that is only a sorrow today into a national resource, both for helping other pets and for aiding people?
For decades, scientists have tested the toxicity of new cancer agents on laboratory beagles before studying the compounds in humans. Comparative oncologists have good reason to think that pet dogs with naturally occurring cancers can likewise become good models for testing the antitumor punch delivered by promising treatments.
One reason has to do with the way human trials are conducted. Because of the need to ensure that the potential benefits of an experimental therapy outweigh the risks, researchers end up evaluating drugs with the deck stacked against success; they attempt to thrash bulky, advanced cancers that have failed previous treatment with other agents. In contrast, comparative oncologists can test new treatment ideas against early-stage cancers--delivering the drugs just as they would ultimately be used in people. When experimental drugs prove helpful in pets, researchers gain a leg up on knowing which therapies are most likely to aid human patients. So comparative oncologists are optimistic that their findings in dogs will be more predictive than rodent studies have been and will help expeditiously identify those agents that should (and should not) be tested in large-scale human trials.
If we are going to beat cancer, we need a new path to progress.