TGen and VARI will work to unravel the genetics of osteosarcoma, oral melanoma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in dogs.

Researchers hope that a new consortium set up to study connective tissue cancers that are relatively common in dogs will throw light on the biology, genetics, and possibly treatment of equivalent but rare cancers in humans.

The Canine Hereditary Cancer Consortium has been established by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and the Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) with some $4.3 million in federal stimulus grant funding. TGen and VARI stress the program has been endorsed by the American Kennel Club and the Morris Animal Foundation. An additional $1 million in funding is being donated by two major pet-care companies.

The initial focus of research is on sarcomas, because while these tumors are rare in humans, they are relatively common in certain breeds of dog. “The sad reality of sarcoma, because it is such a rare human disease, is that very few scientists take the time to do any research on it because it is not possible to get the number of samples you need for those kinds of studies,” remarks Nick Duesbery, Ph.D., co-director of VARI’s Center for Comparative Biology and Genetics. The consortium’s work will use canine saliva, blood, and tumor samples donated voluntarily from privately owned dogs. 

Dog breeds such as golden retrievers, German shepherds, and clumber spaniels also demonstrate relatively little genetic variation, which is a major benefit in the hunt for common genetic factors. “We’ve got an incredible advantage here with dogs,” adds Dr. Duesbery.“Our strongest hope and desire is that we can translate that into therapies we can use for people.”

Within the first two years, the project aims to study osteosarcoma, oral melanoma, malignant histiocytosis, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. TGen and VARI hope to eventually expand research to include neurological and behavioral disorders as well as hearing loss and other conditions in dogs that could relate to human patients.

The canine data will also be used to help gain insights into the development of certain cancers in dogs as well as the development of new canine cancer diagnostics and potentially new canine cancer therapies. VARI started investigating hemangiosarcoma in clumber spaniels in 2008. As a result, it says, researchers are now developing new genetic screens, diagnostic tests, and treatments for hereditary canine cancers. They also hope to identify biomarkers indicative of future cancer development in clumbers.

The consortium partners include NCI’s pediatric and genetics branches and Comparative Oncology program along with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Michigan State University, dog breeders, and veterinarians. TGen’s Drug Development Services subsidiary will also look to establish partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.

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