How Dogs Are Helping Cure Childhood Cancers

Childhood cancer is relatively rare. More than 15,000 kids, from birth to age 19, are diagnosed each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The proportionately low number of cases, coupled with the wide variety of types of cancers that occur in children and teens, makes it that much harder to study pediatric cancers and find effective treatments.

But maybe there's another way to learn more about children's cancers and how to treat them.

Enter: man’s best friend.

Cancers in Dogs Are Similar to Cancers in Children

Cancers that develop in dogs are actually very similar to those found in children, and cancer is much more common among dogs. Some six million pet dogs develop cancer each year in the United States, according to the Animal Cancer Foundation.

By studying the connection between the two, researchers hope to develop treatments to help both the children and the animals. One organization that’s working to raise awareness about the benefits of comparative oncology — studying cancers in animals with the goal of translating the findings to humans — is the Canines-N-Kids Foundation, an organization with a goal to “fight cancer at both ends of the leash.”

In pursuit of that goal, Ulrike Szalay, the foundation’s executive director, recently published We’ll Get Through This Together!, a picture book that aims to reassure children who have been hospitalized for cancer treatment.

Szalay hopes that sales of the book will help raise funds to develop new treatments that could benefit both children and dogs with cancer. In addition, the foundation’s new Project Hearts & Tails program plans to deliver a free copy of the book to children newly diagnosed with cancer, along with a soft stuffed animal — a black lab, just like the one in the book — to cuddle.

“Child cancer populations are relatively small, but it’s not good enough to say it’s a rare disease. It’s a life-and-death battle for those families,” Szalay says.

Clinical Cancer Trials for Dogs Already Underway

Amy LeBlanc, a doctor of veterinary medicine and the director of the Comparative Oncology Program at the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Center for Cancer Research, oversees clinical cancer trials for dogs. And no, this is different from animals used in experiments, like transgenic mice bred and used for laboratory research. Dr. LeBlanc says that clinical trials for dogs are exactly as they are for humans, with pets being treated as patients, not subjects.

“By studying them in the context of clinical trials, it can advance new concepts and better treatments for humans and, potentially, for dogs as patients themselves,” she says.

One of the NCI-led trials focuses on osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that’s rare in kids but common in dogs. LeBlanc says that the genetics of this particular cancer are so similar in dogs and children, you can hardly tell them apart. Because of the prevalence of canine osteosarcoma (especially in large-breed dogs), enrolling them in clinical trials can not only benefit dogs, by providing access to new therapies and alleviating the cost of care for pet owners, but it could also be the foundation for drug development to treat humans with that type of cancer.

“Our efforts through dogs are directly designed to benefit not just them as a patient population but also to help children who, for the last 30 years, have seen no significant advances in their disease management,” LeBlanc says.

How to Get Your Dog Involved in Helping Dogs and Kids With Cancer

While survival rates for children with cancer have dramatically improved over the years, it’s still the leading cause of death by disease in children. In 2017, cancer accounted for 17 percent of deaths overall in children between ages 5 and 9, according to a June 2019 report from the CDC.

“The number of life years lost when a child perishes is significant,” says Szalay. “Dogs really experience cancer so similarly to us, and comparative cancer research has the potential to advance progress for our most vulnerable patients — both two- and four-legged.”

If you have a dog with cancer and you are interested in enrolling your pet in a clinical trial, find out more through the NCI-funded Canine Immunotherapy Trials Network and the Comparative Oncology Program's listing of open clinical trials.

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