MADISON, Wis. - University of Wisconsin-Madison Veterinary Care's oncology department is conducting a clinical trial that could develop a vaccine for canine cancer.
In the next few weeks, about 300 local dogs will be injected with either a placebo or a vaccine that is meant to stop cancer before it starts.
The dogs will be watched for five years and injected with boosters of the vaccine while receiving free veterinary care, including ultrasounds, chest X-rays and blood work, to see if they develop cancer.
"Of course, it would be much better if we could prevent it, rather than have to treat it after it arises," said Dr. David Vail, with the UW School of Veterinary Medicine.
The clinic currently sees more than 300 dogs each year with lymphoma, one of the most common forms of canine cancer. When dogs turn 6 years old, Vail said their risk of getting cancer rises to 40 percent.
Vail said with chemotherapy treatments, the clinic can get dogs to a third or fourth remission, but the disease will eventually return and take the dog's life.
That's why he believes a vaccine that could prevent cancer from growing in the first place would be the best option.
"The science behind it is outside of the box," said Vail. "The idea that we could target several types of cancer at the same time. If this technology works in the dog, then it could work in people."
In the largest clinical trial in veterinary medicine, veterinary clinics at Colorado State University, University of California-Davis and UW-Madison will inject healthy dogs with an abnormal protein that has been found on the surface of some common cancer cells.
Similar to other vaccines, the abnormal proteins will prime the dogs' immune systems to recognize it and kill it.
"Those act as the wanted poster for the good guys, the killer cells, to be primed so that if they ever were to see that abnormal protein develop in a patient, in a dog or a person, they're already primed to recognize it as bad," said Vail.
With any clinical trial, there is a possibility that it will fail.
"There's a small chance that it could work, this work. This really needs to be done to find that out," Vail said.
He said if cancer rates are low before the study ends in five years, the technology could move more quickly into human trials.
That's one of the biggest reasons Abbey Ace decided to enlist her terrier mix, Norton, in the study.
"I think that's the coolest part," said Ace.
There are still a lot of unknowns about how the dogs will react to the vaccine, but Ace believes the risk is worth it if her dog can play a role in curing cancer in the future.
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