Can veterinary oncology guide us to new treatments for human cancer?

By Rachel Airley, EPB Board member and Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology

Thanks to the availability of pet insurance, more and more pet owners are able to get access to ever more sophisticated treatments, offering hope that for our furry friends diseases once considered untreatable will no longer be a death sentence.

Like humans, dogs and cats may develop cancer- in particular, bone, breast and skin cancers, as well as blood cancers such as lymphoma and leukaemia. The human and animal versions of the disease share similar characteristics so this has led to vets specialising in cancer to wonder whether research into the development of cancer treatment for use in naturally occurring veterinary cancers may give us important information about the way cancers work. This could turn out to be an important stepping stone for developing new anticancer drugs for use in humans.

There is now a multi-million dollar research programme, the Comparative Oncology Program, taking place under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health in the USA. Meanwhile, alongside the Human Genome Project, which has received a significant level of media attention with regard to the wealth of scientific avenues it will unleash in our quest to cure disease, the Cat and Dog Genome Projects have been progressing behind the scenes.

This will reveal a “synergy” between the species, allowing us to pinpoint commonalities in cancer gene expression and which of these genes are worth targeting to create new treatments.. Veterinary oncology has lagged behind the equivalent specialism in human medicine for many years, and we have only started to learn how to treat cancer in pet animals in the last couple of decades.

Since vets, doctors and scientists started working together, the development of new anticancer drugs has been more synchronised, with animal versions of the modern “targeted” anticancer drugs being approved for use in cats and dogs which work in a similar way to the newer human anticancer drugs. It is a salutary thought, that whilst restrictions are placed upon the use of expensive new anticancer drugs in the NHS, we are seeing these drugs used more frequently in our pets. Perhaps we have a lot to learn from this.