National cancer meeting unifies human and animal studies

Dozens of leading cancer experts who convened in the nation’s capital this month agree that human and animal oncologists will more effectively pursue cures for the disease in all species by closely collaborating to set a shared research agenda and to devise beneficial clinical trials.

The meeting, spearheaded by Colorado State University’s renowned Flint Animal Cancer Center, was designed to set a unified vision for translational cancer research – meaning the studies that seek effective cancer treatments starting with animal patients, with results that benefit animal and human health. The approach is possible because of similarities in tumors across species.

“We found tremendous support among the human and veterinary medical communities, governmental, and other non-governmental research institutions for the value of comparative oncology in cancer research and in the development of new therapies,” said Dr. Rodney Page, a veterinary oncologist, director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center and a lead organizer of the recent workshop.

A capacity crowd of about 175 people attended the June 8-9 meeting, titled “The Role of Clinical Studies for Pets with Naturally Occurring Tumors in Translational Cancer Research”; it was live-streamed to 150 other participants. The workshop, held in Washington, D.C., was hosted by the National Cancer Policy Forum, which is part of the Institute of Medicine, the health division of the prestigious National Academies. About 20 academic and nonprofit organizations sponsored the event.

The gathering helped generate support for comparative oncology. It also identified two preliminary objectives for greater research within veterinary oncology: more fully characterizing the genetic makeup of tumors that develop in dogs and people, and further investigating the role of cancer immunology in dogs.

Participants also noted that veterinary oncologists must more widely communicate comparative oncology’s research achievements to medical peers and the public to help spur new and effective therapies.

The conference was eye-opening for some participants representing human medicine.

Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, said in the meeting’s closing presentation that he knew little about cancer in companion animals until his golden retriever was stricken and died.

“All of this is likely unknown to most of us, as it was for me,” he said, and later posted in his blog on the American Cancer Society’s website. “Enabling this approach to learning more about cancer treatment in dogs might help us – pets and people alike – do good for each other.”

Many new therapies fail in human clinical trials despite evidence of efficacy in traditional rodent models because these animals typically lack key characteristics of human cancer.

Yet human and pet tumors share many characteristics, renewing interest in studies of companion animals with naturally occurring tumors.

For instance, strong similarities in the genetic aberrations and gene expression patterns in dog and human cancers have been confirmed since the dog genome was sequenced in 2005. In 2012, the first national canine tumor bank – the Canine Comparative Oncology and Genomics Consortium – opened in Bethesda, Md., providing cancer researchers with more resources.

In addition, people and pets are exposed to the same environmental factors. Also beneficial to comparative research: Dogs age faster than people, so clinical studies produce results quicker.

“Translational studies in pets with naturally occurring cancers can serve as a useful intermediary between traditional preclinical models and human clinical trials,” said Dr. Michael Kastan, executive director of the Duke Cancer Institute and chairman of the workshop organizing committee.

Examples of therapeutic advances in human oncology that have derived in part from clinical trials in dogs include:

• improvements in understanding radiation response for head and neck cancers;
• a limb-sparing surgical technique that became the standard in human osteosarcoma patients; and
• a new drug that improves the survival rate for children with bone cancer by delaying metastasis.

Still, the cancer research community overall has not reached a consensus on how best to integrate clinical studies in pets within the cancer research continuum. This motivated the workshop.

“We have much to do in raising awareness about the value of comparative oncology,” Page said. “This workshop represents a milestone in building a campaign to improve scientific tools to better understand cancer in our patients and understand how to create a stronger, collective approach to cancer research.”

During the meeting, presentations were delivered by experts from the National Cancer Institute, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Human Genome Research Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, pharmaceutical companies and several veterinary oncology centers that participate in the National Cancer Institute’s Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium.

The consortium coordinates canine cancer trials among 20 veterinary teaching hospitals housing dedicated oncology centers; it was highlighted as a valuable organizational platform for standardized protocols and the pooling of available patients. The centers work collaboratively to design and execute clinical trials for dogs with naturally occurring cancers, then share results.

To see presentations, visit: http://www.iom.edu/Activities/Disease/NCPF/2015-JUN-08.aspx.

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