Research Highlight December 28, 2017

Finding better cancer treatments

A $500,000 gift by an anonymous donor from Connecticut has helped JAX launch a major new research initiative focused on finding cures for human and canine cancers.
Photo by Erin Blinn.

JAX Launches Tallwood Canine Cancer Research Initiative to find the most effective predictors and treatments

A new ally has emerged in the quest to cure cancer: man’s best friend. The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) has unveiled the Tallwood Canine Cancer Research Initiative (TCCRI), which will create a biobank of dog tumors that the nonprofit biomedical research institution plans to use and share with researchers around the world to provide new insights into cures for cancer in humans, and dogs too.

As part of this initiative, JAX is beginning to work with top veterinary centers around the country. When a canine is diagnosed with a cancer of interest, its owner can opt to have the veterinarian donate their dog’s tumor to TCCRI when it is removed during the dog’s cancer treatment. JAX will use the donated tumor to create a patient-derived xenograft (PDX) cancer model and sequence each tumor model established, much like the organization does for its human PDX resource. PDX tumors are grown in mice, and can provide information including how cancer changes over time and what therapeutics are most effective. JAX will use these PDX models for its ongoing cancer research programs to benefit humans, as well as make them available to researchers around the world to accelerate the process of cancer treatment discovery.

To assist with the interpretation of genetic mutations in these canine tumors, JAX investigators will also sequence the DNA from healthy canines of specific breeds, whose owners voluntarily donate blood samples through their vets. Comparing healthy dogs to dogs of the same breed with cancerous mutations is expected to yield crucial information in better understanding cancer’s roots.

JAX received a $500,000 gift for the Tallwood Canine Cancer Research Initiative from an anonymous Hartford-area donor. The TCCRI project began last month with the collection of DNA from the first healthy canine blood sample – the donor family’s dog, Patrick, an Irish Wolfhound.

“As a geneticist, when you learn that certain purebred dogs recurrently get the same cancer type and thus are predisposed to those cancers – despite differences in their environments – you reason that there’s probably something underlying in their genome that encourages that specific cancer type to form,” said Charles Lee, Ph.D., FACMG, Scientific Director and Professor at JAX Genomic Medicine. “By studying specific dog breeds’ genomes, we can work to identify which parts of the genome differ between breeds and could contribute to cancer. Subsequently, identifying corresponding regions in human genomes might potentially uncover new regulatory elements that encourage these types of cancers in humans. This strategy is particularly useful for cancers that are rare among humans, but commonly found in certain dog breeds.”

Lee continued: “The information gained from this program will undoubtedly also improve what we learn about canine tumors and, in doing so, lead to improved personalized cancer treatments for dogs. It really is a win-win for both species.”

Indeed, dog cancers and human cancers have been shown to be quite similar. For example, dogs get the same kinds of brain cancers as people, and their immune systems react similarly to treatments.

“It’s remarkable how similar our species are in this area. I am optimistic we will discover important information about how to best treat man and man’s best friend,” Lee said.

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