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In It Together

Comparative oncologists discover better cancer treatments — both for humans and dogs

Getting a cancer diagnosis is terrifying, and even in the best of circumstances, it’s a grueling journey. And it’s the same when it happens to our beloved pets. Deborah Knapp, for one, wants to make it count.

Knapp, who is the director of the Comparative Oncology program at Purdue, is contributing to a growing body of research showing just how man’s best friend is speeding up the development of cancer-fighting drugs. Perhaps not surprisingly, scientists say humans and dogs are about 95% genetically identical. That’s why cancer affects them in the same way it does us.

Knapp’s work helps compare cancers in dogs to cancers in humans to develop new ways to diagnose and treat the disease. 

“Comparative oncology means studying cancer across species, so you can learn something from one species that applies to another,” says Knapp. In clinical trials at Purdue, dogs with naturally occurring cancers are given new treatments to attack tumors — and dog owners are signing up their pets for a minimal cost.

Blue, a Sheltie sheepdog, has urinary bladder cancer. When Blue’s owner Ward Witt learned of Blue’s cancer, he figured his friend only had months to live. He learned of the research at Purdue and signed him up.  “This seemed like a treatment that can actually do something,” says Witt.

With treatment, Blue’s tumor shrank, and his quality of life has grown. “We were very pleased. It was very good news,” says Witt.

Unfortunately, only one out of every 10 cancer drug clinical trials in humans is successful. Researchers at Purdue say testing cancer drugs in dogs can more accurately predict their success in humans, as compared to laboratory tests or tests with mice. That speeds up clinical trials while reducing costs.

Timothy Ratliff, the Robert Wallace Miller Director at Purdue Center for Cancer Research (PCCR), explains why this is so significant. “The phase one trial alone costs $35 million. So, if you can evaluate these drugs in dogs and eliminate the unsuccessful ones early on, you’re saving drug companies a lot of money. It means lower drug costs in the end.”

Laurie Hoffman is grateful for what the program has done for her dog. “I mean, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it saved his life,” she says. Her Scottie, Dexter, who has bladder cancer, joined two years ago. And she says his cancer has been contained. 

Brenda and David Schisler drive nearly five hours each way every month for Mini, who also has bladder cancer. 

“Usually with bladder cancer, it’s a three- to six-month life span. Well, it’s been 23 months. It’s a big difference,” says Brenda. David agrees.

“That’s the most gratifying part of all this,” he says. “Someday it could be one of your loved ones. It could save their life.”