• Companion animals could be vital in creating further strides in modern medicine, according to new studies.
  • 94% of cancer therapies developed using mice fail to benefit people, research shows.
  • Genetic testing of tumours from companion animals has shown there is genetic diversity, which is lacking in mice.
  • This means pets are almost perfect models to investigate the effectiveness of new disease treatments, researchers say.

Our animal companions bring us joy and love us unconditionally. There is no question that our pet dogs and cats play an important role in our lives as companions.

But what might surprise people is that our pets may hold the key to a cure for human diseases, including cancer. Clinical studies of naturally occurring diseases in domesticated dogs and cats may fast track the development of therapies to the benefit of human and animal health.

Health and healthcare

How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors. The opposite to a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, it has vast, untapped potential to transform the treatment and prediction of rare diseases—and disease in general.

But there is no global governance framework for such data and no common data portal. This is a problem that contributes to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of rare-disease patients worldwide.

The World Economic Forum’s Breaking Barriers to Health Data Governance initiative is focused on creating, testing and growing a framework to support effective and responsible access – across borders – to sensitive health data for the treatment and diagnosis of rare diseases.

The data will be shared via a “federated data system”: a decentralized approach that allows different institutions to access each other’s data without that data ever leaving the organization it originated from. This is done via an application programming interface and strikes a balance between simply pooling data (posing security concerns) and limiting access completely.

The project is a collaboration between entities in the UK (Genomics England), Australia (Australian Genomics Health Alliance), Canada (Genomics4RD), and the US (Intermountain Healthcare).

New methods to tackle an insidious disease

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, killing 230 Canadians each day. Traditionally, when a researcher develops a cancer therapy, it is first tested in lab-grown cancer cells to determine whether the treatment will have any effects against the tumour.

Next, the therapy is tested on mice by artificially inducing the disease and assessing the ability of the therapy to kill the cancer. If the therapy appears to work, it is then taken to human patients in an initial safety and efficacy trial.

We are becoming acutely aware that this approach is flawed. A staggering 94 per cent of cancer therapies developed using mice fail to show any clinical benefit in people. This failure means that sick people aren’t getting the effective treatments that they desperately need. People remain sick, and are dying, because we cannot treat them successfully.

Additionally, taking just one experimental therapy to clinical trials in people can cost millions of dollars. Most of this money comes from taxpayers in the form of government research funding. We need a sustainable and effective path forward.

A close view of a mouse
The overwhelming majority of cancer therapies tested on mice fail to translate into cures for humans.
Image: Unsplash/Alexandr Gusev

Companion animals

The Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph is home to a very busy Animal Cancer Centre that treats more than 5,000 companion animals for cancer annually. In contrast to the rodent models that we develop in the lab, companion animals like dogs and cats develop cancer spontaneously, just like humans. Additionally, our pet dogs and cats live in the same environment that we do and are faced with the same environmental pressures, which may be why they experience a similar incidence of some types of cancer.

Genetic testing of tumours from companion animals has shown there is genetic diversity, like what is seen in humans, in contrast to the genetic homogeneity seen in mice. Our pet dogs and cats represent almost perfect models to investigate the effectiveness of new disease treatments.

We have an extremely talented team of cancer scientists, veterinary surgical oncologists and medical oncologists with tremendous experience conducting companion animal cancer clinical trials. In these trials, we treat pets with conventional cancer therapies, but we also use novel, cutting-edge therapies developed by our team. These include anti-cancer viruses, therapies to restrict blood flow to tumours and treatments to activate the immune system.

Identifying therapies

We have recently undertaken an aggressive initiative where we are partnering with cancer clinicians that treat people with cancer. With these partnerships, we can take a therapy from testing in cancer cells and mice to companion animal cancer trials, and ultimately to humans. This is known as translational research.

With translational research, we can identify and discontinue therapies that are unlikely to have a clinical benefit. This could dramatically reduce the high failure rate we are currently seeing in cancer therapies tested in people. For therapies that show promise, we can revise, refine and improve the therapeutic approach, both in the companion animal trials, and in preclinical rodent models.

A dog at a veterinary
Researching treatments for cancer in companion animals can bring us closer to a human cure.
Image: Unsplash/Karsten Winegeart

Revised therapies can be further tested in companion animal trials, and then moved to human clinical trials. Our team can offer novel therapies that have been robustly tested and refined in preclinical trials and companion animal cancer patients.

Approaching a cure

A translational approach with companion animal models represents a shift in how we develop cancer therapies, and provides an exciting opportunity to develop effective therapies in both people and pets. And the promise of this approach extends beyond cancer to other conditions.

There are several other medical conditions that show a similarity of causes between humans and companion animals, such as osteoarthritis of the knee and hip and some psychiatric conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

From the kennel to a cure, translational research will change the landscape of disease therapy in Canada, and could dramatically improve the lives of Canadians and their pets.