Cats and Dogs May Help Physicians Treat Human Cancers

Tufts is studying the connections between human and animal disease to find new therapies.

Dog owning has been linked to numerous health benefits, from lower cholesterol to better heart health. Tufts Medical Center and Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine think it doesn’t have to stop there.

Tufts is studying the physiological similarities between pets and humans to study cancer across different species, a field known as comparative oncology. Tufts is one of only 20 U.S. institutions participating in the National Cancer Institute’s Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium, which seeks new and innovative ways to treat cancer.

“We’re really interested in the idea of ‘one health,’ the idea that animals, humans, and the environment are all interconnected,” says Elizabeth McNeil, a veterinary oncologist at the Cummings School’s Foster Hospital for Small Animals. “Some cancers in cats and dogs really do mirror the human disease.”

These common cancers range from leukemia to bladder disease to lymphoma, which often link back to communal spaces. If there’s a cancerous chemical or exposure in a house, for example, it makes sense that both a human and a dog living there would contract the same illness.

“People are usually more willing to try new, cutting-edge treatments on their companion animals than on themselves,” McNeil says. “But, later, they can benefit from the data when it’s used in human clinical trials.”

Andrew Evens, the Director of Tufts’ Cancer Center, says the project is a major upgrade from the traditional vessel used in cancer studies: a petri dish.

“Before, the only way to look at cancer was to create it artificially in the lab, then inject it [into] mice who didn’t have immune systems,” Evens says. “It’s a far cry from natural, spontaneous cancer development—and that’s why so many drugs on the market don’t work, or don’t make it out there in the first place.”

Evens adds that “the future of cancer treatment is [in] highly personalized, specific therapies” tailored to fit an individual’s DNA. Comparative oncology, he says, allows Tufts researchers to look at specific genetic similarities and differences based on species, down to the breed of dog or cat.

“When we apply these results to human patients, we’ll now be able to make a more personalized and informed decision [about treatment],” Evens says.

Philip Hinds, a professor of radiation oncology at Tufts Medical Center, says pets also often fare better with diseases and missing limbs than humans, making them easier to study.

“You can’t study cancer without real, affected organisms,” Hinds says. “These aren’t lab rats. They’re human companions.”