Research Highlight March 20, 2020

JAX bites back at dog cancer, with surprising results!

We share a lot of things with our dogs: loyal friendships, long walks in the park, a love for treats, and the makeup of cancerous tumors. That's right: according to recent research by  Roel Verhaak, Ph.D.Brain tumors, sequencing, computational biology.Dr. Roel Verhaak  at The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), certain cancerous tumors in dogs are very similar to those on humans. This cancer research centers on diffuse glioma -- the most common type of malignant (or damaging) brain tumor -- and used cells gathered posthumously and graciously donated by the dogs' owners.  

Helping man's best friend to help ourselves 

Verhaak has been involved in cancer research at JAX for some time now, but this marks his first foray into the cause of cancer in dogs. Despite this, however, Verhaak has a strong love for dogs and has experienced symptoms of cancer in dogs in his own life.  

In an interview, Verhaak reflected on a childhood memory,  

"(...) we had a dog in my childhood and it walked around with, what started as a small lump, and it grew and it grew (...) She was quite old and then, it became obvious that she was actually in pain and they had her put down. But she lived with it, I would say, for at least five years without any issue related to it. So I guess that was the first time the concept of canine cancer was clear."

Verhaak would revisit this memory later when asked by a fellow researcher to get involved in the canine cancer project. Verhaak was hesitant at first, not wanting to take valuable resources away from cancer research that would directly help humans. He soon realized, though, that cancer seemed to appear in dogs often in similar ways to people, and people went through a lot to boost their dog's immune system to fight it. As Verhaak put it, "It is valuable to study human disease. To understand canine cancer will help us to better understand human cancer, and particularly from that angle of immunotherapy." 

The results of the cancer research 

Verhaak published his study this past month (February 2020), and in the paper published in Cancer Cell, he highlighted several results, some of which were very surprising. Now the focus of this research was on gliomas or cancerous tumors that form in the brain. According to the study, dogs develop these gliomas much the same way as humans.  

What was surprising to Verhaak and his team was that canine glioma more closely resembles pediatric glioma rather than adult. In other words, the cancerous tumors in the dogs share more traits with cancer found in human children than adults. There are many implications of this research, which you can read more about  Finding a cure for Fido's brain cancer may help us find a cure for ourselvesJAX Professor Roel Verhaak has thoroughly analyzed sporadic canine gliomas and found that their molecular characteristics, including gene mutations and duplications, resemble those of humans. here (including a link to the original paper)

As is typical with research, it's too early to draw any concrete treatments. Despite this, though, Verhaak is hopeful about the study, "I think we're going to learn an incredible amount by comparing the species in (this) way. Not just comparing canine glioma to adult human glioma, but comparing canine glioma to pediatric glioma."  

All for one, one for all 

In other words, this line of research could potentially benefit adults, kids, and dogs all affected by this uncompromising disease. Glioblastoma is a particularly aggressive form of cancer, but now that man's best friend is involved, we may be slowly pushing closer to effective treatments! 

This exciting research is a perfect example of the work being done at JAX. Hunting down and eliminating cancer at its genetic source is what JAX has been investigating for the past nine decades. Working to more precisely target cancer is one of JAX's driving forces, and this research is one more step in the effort to transform health for all.