Dogs Are Key to Revolutionary Cancer Study

Kyra looks like any other energetic Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, but she's also a cancer survivor -- and a reason for hope.

Two years ago, the 10-year-old canine's owner, Eileen Eisenhower, noticed an eerily familiar lump on Kyra's leg. Eileen is a nurse who treats human cancer patients.

"I said, 'Oh, Kyra, you have lymphoma," Eisenhower recalled lamenting. "I just knew it."

But Eisenhower converted her pain into promise, enrolling Kyra in a revolutionary vaccine study at the University of Pennsylvania, which had an unlikely collaboration between canine veterinarians and human oncologists.

Four million dogs are diagnosed with cancer every year -- cancers very similar to the human versions.

"Down to the microscope, they look very similar and they behave similarly," Dr. Robert Vonderheide at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania said.

And this translates into the most promising aspect of this study: "They also respond to treatment very similarly," Vonderheide points out.

One of the greatest advantages to studying dogs is they age faster -- literally, in "dog years," so scientists can get the results of their studies more quickly.

"It's like a compressed biological life span that we can study -- the cancer progression -- and also potentially the response to therapy," said Dr. Karin Sorenmo, associate professor of oncology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

In the study involving Kyra, doctors took genetic material from a cancerous tumor, implanted it in healthy infection-fighting b-cells outside the body to train them to attack the lymphoma, and then injected it back into Kyra.

Sorenmo was encouraged by the results. "I'm hoping that this is just the beginning of more trials that can benefit helping dogs, helping people."

Kyra is back to her hyperenergetic and healthy self. She and a number of the dogs in the study are now cancer-free. The researchers estimate they are within two years of testing the vaccine on humans.

Without the dogs, they would be more than a decade away.

"If we didn't have this information that we're learning from vaccinating people's pets, we would still be studying the vaccine in laboratory dishes without a real hope of going forward in the near future," Vondreheide said.

The researchers' optimism resonates on multiple levels for Eisenhower, as a grateful dog owner and dedicated cancer nurse.

"I hope that someday I can give this vaccine to people and to kids -- and to, you know, let people know how it started and where it came from," Eisenhower said.

She can tell them it came from man's best friend.

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