Dogs With Cancer Helping to Find a Cure

Dogs receiving various treatments are helping medicine find new therapies for people, too.

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Veterinarian Gerald Post learned the benefits of canine cancer trials as a pet owner. "Instead of living three months, he lived 2½ years," Post says of his miniature schnauzer, Smokey, a participant in the Oncept trials. "He taught me to leave no stone unturned." Post is now an investigator for several canine clinical trials, which he runs out of his Norwalk, Conn., office.

Joining a trial offers twin rewards for dog owners: access to cutting-edge treatments they might not otherwise be able to find or afford, and, even when there's little hope, the satisfaction of contributing to the quest for cures. "We knew the trial wouldn't resolve the cancer," says Richard Liscinsky, whose golden retriever, Samantha, 6, was part of a one-week trial of a protein-based lymphoma drug designed to restrict the growth of cancer cells. Liscinsky and his wife, Ann, who live in Bronxville, N.Y., hoped the treatment regimen would offer up some answers and give them one more summer in Vermont with their beloved pet. Lymphoma is all too common in golden retrievers; Samantha is the second of the three goldens the Liscinskys have owned that has contracted the disease. "It's frightening that cancer is so rampant—for all of us," Ann says.

Owners who participate in trials typically get at least part of the care at no charge. The funding comes from a variety of sources, including federal grants, pharmaceutical companies, and philanthropists with a soft spot for dogs. Among the last group are Dave and LuAnn Runkle of Wayzata, Minn., who lost their golden retriever, William, to a rare and aggressive form of cancer called histiocytosis and then launched the Will-Power Cancer Research Fund to support comparative oncology trials at the University of Minnesota. The $10,000 they've raised so far is helping to fund trials in both dogs and cats, which also develop tumors that are similar to human cancers. Dave's motto? "Help your animal, help yourself," he says.

Shelter rescues. Some comparative oncology programs are reaching out to dogs that have no owners to rely on. In the summer of 2009, the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine launched the Shelter Canine Mammary Tumor Program, for example. Veterinarians there rescue dogs with mammary tumors from shelters, remove the tumors, and then adopt the dogs out to local families. More than 30 dogs have benefited so far, says Karin Sorenmo, Penn Vet's chief of medical oncology.

Sorenmo's team is studying the tumors to try to figure out what causes benign breast cells to turn malignant and spread. "It's metastasis that kills the cancer patient," Sorenmo says. "If we can learn what genetic events make tumors spread, it opens up a lot of possibilities for new treatments."

For Mildred Edmond, that possibility is intriguing on several levels. Edmond adopted Cali, a 6-year-old bichon frise in the Penn trial who had 11 tumors removed. "Poor little Cali—she had a full mastectomy," Edmond says. Edmond herself survived breast cancer six years ago, so she is eager for the scientists at Penn to unravel the complexities of the disease. "I have two granddaughters and a great granddaughter. I'd hate for them to go through what I went through," she says. (Edmond and Cali are both now cancer-free.)

Dog survivors sometimes play more than a research role. After Emmy survived her bout with cancer, Streeter signed her up for a program at Children's Hospital of Denver called YAPS, for Youth and Pet Survivors. With Streeter's help, Emmy sent letters and photos to a young girl being treated for brain cancer. "I became [the patient's] pen pal," Streeter says. "She brought pictures of Emmy to surgery."

Streeter likes to think that giving Emmy the opportunity to contribute to a fuller understanding of a cancer that affects kids made the disease more bearable for everyone involved. Emmy loved children, she says. "If I could have asked her permission to do the trial, she would have said, 'Yeah, let's do it.' "

Arlene Weintraub is the New York editor of Xconomy.com.