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Bonded for Life
October 25, 2019 – Ulrike Szalay

Bonded for Life

One organization facilitates research on sick canines to help generate treatments for children and animals.
BY Ulrike Szalay
PUBLISHED October 25, 2019
Two of our most vulnerable and precious family members have a more special bond than imagined. Every year, 16,000 children and 6 million pet dogs receive diagnoses of remarkably similar cancers. Resources to find a cure for either have been limited, but with joined forces, that could change.

Working in biotech, I witnessed firsthand the slow and difficult process of cancer drug development, especially for kids. That’s why, in 2016, I founded the Canines-N-Kids Foundation as a way to promote integration of research efforts benefiting both kids and pet dogs, with the aim of bringing resources to the fight and accelerating progress. The time was right: Research continues to uncover and validate profound clinical and biological similarities between certain pediatric and canine cancers.

Our work supports comparative oncology, the study of naturally occurring cancers in animals and the comparison and potential application of the findings to their human counterparts. This work can contribute to a better understanding of cancer biology and underlying genetic factors, helping scientists quicken the development of new treatments and cures that benefit both children and animals. Specifically, it can involve clinical trials evaluating treatments in pet dogs that have cancer, with a goal of finding new therapies not only for the animals but also for children with the disease.

An example of how this works comes from an early-stage National Cancer Institute (NCI) trial in 2015, which tested an experimental drug, NHS-IL12, in canine patients with melanoma to determine dosing and side effects. During the trial, NCI researchers discovered that the drug, which has properties of both a targeted agent and an immunotherapy and works by activating the immune system against cancer, also showed signs of efficacy: It helped shrink the pet dogs’ tumors. This promising data led the NCI to start a clinical trial in people with advanced solid tumors, which is enrolling patients now (NCT01417546). As momentum picks up in comparative oncology and data continues to emerge, we are getting closer every day to understanding the biology, complexities and characteristics of shared canine and childhood cancers, which will enable us to have even more successes.

Last fall, Canines-N-Kids hosted a first-ever Paws for a Cure Research Symposium in cooperation with Merck Research Laboratories in Boston. The symposium brought together thought leaders and researchers from pediatric and veterinary oncology, pharmaceutical companies, patient advocacy groups and government agencies to explore how comparative cancer research can help speed progress.

During the first-of-its-kind conference, participants discussed the state of the art in the understanding of comparative aspects between human and canine cancer, genomics, immunology and imaging. They shared examples from clinical research collaborations between human and veterinary oncologists across several shared childhood and canine cancers, including osteosarcoma, brain cancers, lymphoma and leukemia. Pharmaceutical and regulatory attendees helped frame discussions around comparative research approaches that may accelerate cancer drug development. Childhood cancer survivor panelists, along with a woman and her cancer-surviving dog, emphasized the urgent need for progress.

The symposium attendees identified the need for stronger infrastructure to support comparative cancer research by bridging the resources of medical and veterinary centers and pediatric cancer research consortia, which will enable researchers studying human and canine cancers to work together earlier to share innovative ideas, data and best practices as clinical trials are designed and executed. Finally, industry partners need to be involved in identifying how data from canine cancer patients can best inform human drug development, in a repeatable process designed to make headway for both humans and animals.

Based on information that came out of the conference, Canines-N-Kids is developing an exciting initiative that will create processes and protocols to get languishing tumor samples out of vet-clinic freezers and into analytical laboratories, facilitate improved understanding of the specific similarities between canine and human cancers, and ensure that this comparator data lands in an open-source repository where real progress can be unleashed.

To keep the momentum going, we will host the second Paws for a Cure Research Symposium June 22-24, 2020, in Boston. Ongoing preclinical, translational and clinical projects, as well as promising prospects for scientific exploration, collaboration and funding, will be featured.

The fact is that outstanding clinical research is being done in both people and dogs. Harnessing the expertise and energies of both worlds will lead to better treatments and cures and perhaps even prevention of cancer in adults, children and our canine friends. Currently, NCI and the American Veterinarian Medical Association are resources for canine “parents” interested in entering their pets into clinical trials. We expect access to trials to improve as collaboration matures between researchers focused on people and those studying pets.

In a cruel twist that underscored the importance of our work, I lost Tobi — a trained assistance dog, my family’s joy and the first mascot of the Canines-N-Kids Foundation — to cancer a year after starting the nonprofit organization. It was difficult to lose my incredible companion. But as a mother, I understand that the pain of losing a child is unlike anything else and that no parent or family should have to go through it. That’s why it’s crucial that we bring together our resources and expertise to solve vexing cancers and stop them from stealing the lives of these precious and most vulnerable patients.
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