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Pets live in our homes, breathe our air, and eat food from farms and factories similar to those that serve humans. All of that exposes dogs to the same environmental risks that contribute to human disease, including cancer. Photo: AFP
Pets live in our homes, breathe our air, and eat food from farms and factories similar to those that serve humans. All of that exposes dogs to the same environmental risks that contribute to human disease, including cancer. Photo: AFP

Can dogs help cure (human) cancer?

The emerging field of comparative oncology seeks therapies for people that build on treatments effective in canines (and vice versa)

New York: Dogs suffer similarly to humans from certain cancers. The emerging field of comparative oncology seeks therapies for people that build on treatments effective in canines (and vice versa).

In a new book, Heal, dog lover and science journalist Arlene Weintraub conducts a brisk and often-moving tour of the frontier of comparative oncology. She describes cutting-edge research aimed at treatments for such ailments as lymphoma, breast cancer, and gastric cancer, the last of which took the life of Weintraub’s older sister, Beth, at the age of 47—a loss that animates the author’s account.

A former Bloomberg Businessweek writer, Weintraub has written for many years about pharmaceuticals and health care, and she’s the author of a book on the anti-aging industry called Selling the Fountain of Youth. Dogs, Weintraub explains, “make ideal models for studying human cancer because, like us, they develop cancer naturally." Mice and rats, the main lab subjects for generations because of their low cost (and lack of personal charm), rarely develop cancer on their own. Rodents have to be genetically manipulated or implanted with tumors to mirror human cancer experiences. Even then, 9 out of 10 experimental drugs that cure rodents of cancer fail in humans. Nonhuman primates like apes aren’t much better; although they share the vast majority of our genes, apes are far less susceptible to cancer (and animal-rights activists lately have been successful in discouraging primate studies).

Dogs, it turns out, share about 85% of our nucleotides, the molecules that form DNA. Pets live in our homes, breathe our air, and eat food from farms and factories similar to those that serve humans, Weintraub notes. All of that exposes dogs to the same environmental risks that contribute to human disease, including cancer.

Basil, a golden retriever the author met in California, was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. His devoted owners, retired schoolteachers Alan and Kathy Wilber, entered him into an experimental trial at the University of California at Davis. The trial eventually produced the first-ever FDA-approved cancer treatment for dogs, known as Palladia, which received its certification in 2009. The research also fed into development of a similar drug for people called Sutent. Part of a class called tyrosine kinase inhibitors, these drugs shrink advanced mast cell tumors by cutting off the blood supply to malignant growths.

Weintraub couches the findings she surveys with appropriate caution. Basil got seven good years of additional life by helping to prove the efficacy of Palladia (and Sutent). He died at the age of 9 after developing an unrelated melanoma in his mouth. But Basil was unusually lucky. Most patients—canine or human—don’t have such good results, and the drugs are not a surefire cure by any means. Weintraub carefully qualifies promising advances as just that: reason for hope, not expectation of miracles.

One of the book’s most memorable passages describes Weintraub’s visit to an aging Israeli oncologist who treated, but could not save, her sister. The doctor declines to endorse the author’s thesis that comparative research on dogs and people will yield dramatic breakthroughs—at least in his lifetime. He has seen cancer defy many would-be remedies. He long ago ceased offering patients—or grieving relatives—empty promises.

Weintraub leaves the encounter discouraged, but still determined to spread the word about researchers younger than the Israeli oncologist who believe they can see beyond present-day therapies. This kind of honest reporting makes Heal a more useful and credible book. Bloomberg

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