How dogs are helping advance important cancer research

Medical Watch

CHICAGO — Glioblastoma afflicts humans and canines, but there are very few effective therapies for the deadly type of brain tumor.

Now local researchers say a treatment that showed promise in pups may have similar results for people.  

Northwestern Medicine’s Dr. Amy Heimberger takes care of humans. But just like us, dogs can get brain cancer, too.

“I’ve been a lifelong dog lover so I probably should have ended up being a vet to be very frank with you,” she said. “There’s very few therapeutics that actually worked for high-grade malignant brain tumors in humans.”

Heimberger and her research partners hope a novel drug may change that. It’s called STING – Stimulator of Interferon Genes.

“It doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t come from bees,” Heimberger said.

The experimental treatment was injected directly into tumors in five canine patients.

“These are not lab animals. These are people’s companions these are their beloved family members,” Heimberger said.

The drug does not act directly on the cancer cells – rather, it activates the body’s own immune system to recognize the glioma tumor and destroy it. As they increased the STING dose, Heimberger said the tumor got “much smaller.”

“You can see there is a lot less infiltration,” she said.

Over the course of 12 weeks and two injections, most of the tumors shrunk. In one canine patient, Heimberger said it completely disappeared.

“You don’t see any of the infiltration,” she said. “And this persisted for many months after treatment we completely dissolved it.”

Heimberger said dogs are better models than mice when it comes to cancer research. They share our same environment and their tumors are similar in size and genetics.

“Typically we have many instances where things work beautifully in mice and we have nice publications and everybody gets excited. The problem is when we take them into clinical trials, they don’t show any effect,” she said. ”That limitation of the science I’ve been doing for the last 20 years is one of the key reasons I wanted to start working with our vets. Because number one, it could benefit a companion animal much beloved and part of our family.”

Human trials are likely at least a year away, but in the meantime, Heimberger said helping dogs is a win as well.

A pharmaceutical company has already licensed the drug and will determine next steps and what types of cancers it may target. But veterinarians hope to now test the drug in canine osteosarcoma – which typically results in an amputation for the animal.

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