Cancer researchers avoid using the word "cure". By studying cancer at the molecular level, they know that tumors are complex-Even personalized. There is no single cancer or single treatment. So, not a single destination for a "moonshot".
But the Moonshot initiative encourages new ways to study cancer, especially in the promising field of immunotherapy. This has stimulated the collaborative work between animal medicine and human medicine, a field of comparative oncology. Dogs develop cancers that are very similar to those of humans. Today, thanks to a new injection of funds, researchers are studying treatments that could save the lives of dogs and people.
The potential for mutual benefit is enormous. During the last decade, at least 10 anti-cancer drugs have been developed with canine studies. More recently, July 3, the Food and Drug Administration selinexor approved (Xpovio) for people with multiple myeloma who have failed at least five other regimens. Verdinexor, the veterinary version, is being developed to treat lymphoma in dogs while being tested as an antiviral treatment in humans.
Five Moonshot-related canine studies use immunotherapy to prime the immune system to eliminate tumors. They include clinical trials conducted on humans and dogs at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, using a genetically modified virus that infects tumor cells and causes the immune system to destroy them. At Tufts University, researchers are testing different combinations of immunotherapy agents to treat dog B-cell lymphoma.
"We understand that the immune system has the ability to fight the spread of the tumor, but we do not know when it will happen," says Cheryl London, a veterinary oncologist at Tufts. This response can give new power to immunotherapy in humans and animals.
Moonshot initiative also funds unprecedented funding genomic sequencing of dogswhich will lead to a better understanding of cancer mutations and their comparison with the human version.
These projects all involve pets who have contracted cancer naturally and are receiving treatment through studies, as humans often do. About half of the dogs more than 10 years old will have cancer. "We are developing very critical and biologically rich information about patients who happen to be dogs," said Amy LeBlanc, veterinarian and director of the National Cancer Institute's Comparative Oncology Program.
The link between cancer and humans in cancer patients goes beyond biology. "Dogs share every aspect of our environment," said veterinarian Diane Brown, executive director of the AKC Canine Health Foundation. "They drink the same water, they are on our own carpets, they are on our own grass, and all pets are the ones who most fully share our lives."
The most audacious and important clinical trial ever conducted on the dog has been designed to prevent and not cure cancer. Although it is not funded by the Moonshot initiative, it pursues the same goal of making a leap forward in cancer research. Stephen Johnston, director of the Center for Innovations in Medicine at Arizona State University, received $ 6.4 million from the Open Philanthropy Project to test a universal cancer vaccine as part of a test of 800 dogs, launched in June. (Half of them will receive a placebo.) Nobody has ever created a vaccine targeting tumor cells to prevent them from developing into cancerous growth. But Johnston has come up with a plan that, in his opinion, could work.
To develop the vaccine, Johnston examined 800 dogs with eight different types of cancer and looked for neo-antigens, unwanted proteins created by RNA splicing errors. I have selected the proteins that would be shared by human tumors and I have developed 30 of them. I first tested the vaccine on mice, but as they do not develop naturally the cancer, they are not the ideal model of cancer in dogs and humans. In fact, about 92% of cancer trials fail to successfully pass animals (mainly mice) to humans. Nevertheless, the mice presented a B cell and T cell immune response.
I then tested it for safety in healthy dogs and injected myself. "The healthy dogs we vaccinated got a good T-cell response, and so did I," he says.
Johnston's goal is to prevent cancer in at least 30% of dogs by triggering an earlier immune response, before the tumor develops. "We treat cancer as an infection," he said. "We pre-arm the immune system against factors of which we are pretty sure that the tumor will produce."
Many people told Johnston that it was impossible to create a vaccine that would prevent cancer in dogs and humans. But his idea intrigued Doug Thamm, director of clinical research at Colorado State University's Flint Animal Cancer Center. Because the average life span of a dog is about 12 years old and the dog has cancer at the age of 8 or 9, it will not take long to detect success, explains Thamm. "We could have a vaccine that could prevent or delay cancer in dogs," he says. "That would really provide as much evidence that it could work in people as you could get it."
Such a large-scale trial will surely produce interesting results, even if the vaccine does not work as a whole, said London, who does not participate in this research. "There may be some types of tumors that have advantages and some do not," she says. "Eight cents is a very large number, much larger than most of the studies we do, and you can do better subassembly analysis."
The Canine Cancer Vaccination Study is currently recruiting dogs aged 6 to 10 who weigh at least 12 pounds and have no history of cancer or autoimmune disease. To register your dog, you must live within 150 km of the Colorado State University at Fort Collins, the University of Wisconsin at Madison or the University of California at Davis.
This study may seem like a shot in the dark as a Moonshot, but it brings real benefits to the owners and their dogs. Besides the ability to protect their dogs against cancer, homeowners receive free veterinary checks from their dogs two to three times a year for five years, as well as financial support for the diagnosis and treatment of any cancer developing .
It may also prove that dogs are our best companions in our ongoing search for better ways to prevent or treat cancer.
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