U of S treating dogs with cancer to help improve treatment for people

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Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are hoping to learn more about extending the lives of people with drug resistant cancer by extending the lives of dogs.

With the $165,000 Innovation Grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, the research team will be able to study a number of dogs from the time they first enter the clinic with drug-sensitive lymphoma throughout their entire treatment. Dogs also have a shorter life span than people allowing researchers to follow their cancer progression in a shorter time frame and get results quicker than through human trials.

“Dogs and humans get the same cancers,” says Dr Troy Harkness, a molecular geneticist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine. “The cancer we’re studying, lymphoma, is very similar to human non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It’s spontaneous, it responds to therapy, the same therapies are used, and they both develop resistance in the same manner.”

For the last 12 years, Dr. Harkness’ research has focused primarily on cancer that no longer responds to treatment. Last year the team began studying the effect of metformin on dogs with drug-resistant lymphoma. Metformin has been used to treat Type 2 diabetes but studies have found that people on metformin seem to develop cancer less often than people who are not.  

“So far we’ve been able to see that proteins we’ve observed being elevated in drug-resistant cancers get reduced as we treat them,” Dr Harkness says. “It’s almost like Star Trek, where you lower the defensive shields. Once you lower the cancer cells’ defenses, you can hit them again with the original chemotherapy so that it works again.”

“In a single dog we can track all the genes and pick out the ones that are being turned on with drug resistance and being turned off later that correlate with reversal of drug resistance,” Dr Harkness says. “If we do this with a number of dogs, we can start picking out the commonalities, the genes that are always turned on, or off.”

“Whatever we find in dogs, we predict will be similar in humans. If we find the right combination, we may be able to predict earlier when multiple drug-resistance is happening, target these individuals and start with a new treatment that may ultimately be more effective.”

Dr Harkness says the team should have enough data within two years to have a really good idea of how metformin assists in reversing drug resistance. Then, a similar study could be run with people to apply what the team has learned in dogs.

Team members include Dr Terra Arnason, a biochemist and clinical endocrinologist, with the College of Medicine, and Dr Tony Kusalik, with the College of Arts and Science, whose primary research interests centre around bioinformatics. Two other team members, Drs Val MacDonald, a veterinary medical oncologist, and Casey Gaunt, a small animal internal medicine specialist, are at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. The combination of research science, clinical science and computer science is an innovative approach to understanding and overcoming cancer.

“Expanding our knowledge about cancer can come from unique places and that’s one of the goals of our Innovation Grants program – supporting projects that approach cancer research from unique perspectives,” says Dr Sian Bevan, Director, Research, Canadian Cancer Society. “Dr Harkness’ research will lead to a better understanding of why multi-drug resistance occurs and could lead to improved ways to detect this resistance at earlier stages and identify targets for new treatments.”

The Society’s Innovation Grants program supports innovation, creative problem solving and unconventional concepts, approaches or methodologies in cancer research. This year the Society has awarded 46 grants worth almost $9 million.

Organizations: University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine, College of Arts and Science, Western College of Veterinary Medicine Canadian Cancer Society University of Saskatchewan

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