Yet Another Reason Why Dogs Are Our Best Friends

Get Permission

The regulation of genes is overall more similar between dogs and humans than between mice and humans…

—Arlene Weintraub


Title: Heal: The Vital Role of Dogs in the Search for Cancer Cures
Author: Arlene Weintraub
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: October 13, 2015
Price:  $16.95; paperback, 240 pages

Comparative oncology, a fairly recent addition to the ever-evolving world of cancer research, studies the naturally developing cancers in animals as models for human disease. Various institutions are looking at this intriguing line of inquiry, most notably the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which launched the NCI Comparative Oncology Program in 2003. Science writer Arlene Weintraub explores the challenges and promise of comparative oncology in her new book Heal: The Vital Role of Dogs in the Search for Cancer Cures.

The author uses a lay-friendly writing style that is conversational but never chatty. Unlike some authors in this genre, Ms. Weintraub knows the difference between solid, information-driven content and filler that is used to beef up a book’s word count to meet a publisher’s criterion. Plus, she’s done her research, backing up every scientific point with data and input from experts in the respective fields.

Early Comparative Oncology

Ms. Weintraub’s interest in oncology was driven, in part, by the loss of her sister to gastric cancer. In 2001, working as a science reporter, Ms. Weintraub heard of an unusual phase III clinical cancer trial involving 206 dogs, which planted the seed for this highly readable book. The trial was part of an international effort to recruit dogs with cancer for research designed to yield new avenues for drug development to treat human cancers.  That was also the first time she had ever heard the term comparative oncology.

As she describes, researchers at the University of California at Davis led the phase trial III trial that was looking at oral toceranib phosphate, a receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitor used in dogs with recurrent mast cell tumor following surgical excision. The trials successful outcomes resulted in Palladia and Sutent, the first-ever FDA-approved drugs to treat cancer in dogs.

Readers of The ASCO Post know that for 30 or more years, drug development using mouse modeling in bench research has been problematic, because so many drugs that cure cancer in these mice fail to help humans. Dog models could markedly improve cancer drug development. Ms. Weintraub explains that most mammals have about 20 thousand genes, and most of them are similar across species…, but it is the nucleotide overlap that’s key to determining how closely related one creature is to another.

“And the regulation of genes is overall more similar between dogs and humans than between mice and humans…. So if you have a drug that’s supposed to interact with a certain portion of a protein, it’s likely that protein will have exactly the same structure and composition in dogs as it does in humans, which means that the dog is much more likely to provide an accurate picture of how that drug will work in people,” writes the author.

True Case Histories

However, while integrating the dog model into cancer research is super exciting—Ms. Weintraub does a superb job explicating the genetics and biology—the subject might run a bit thin for a book, perhaps better suited for an article in a science magazine. Ms. Weintraub addresses that quam by unspooling a series of related chapters that culminate beautifully, ending the book with a chapter titled “Banking on a Cure for Gastric Cancer”—the malignancy that killed her sister.

Ms. Weintraub weaves true case histories of cancer patients throughout the narrative to remind readers that the central aim of using dog models is to advance research that will ultimately result in better treatments for humans. That said, there are many well-drawn descriptions about our canine friends enduring the side effects of cancer treatment, such as a good-natured Golden Lab with breast cancer suffering from chemotherapy-induced nausea and alopecia.

A Clinical Partnership

The readers of The ASCO Post will find something of interest in each of the eleven chapters, especially those in which the veterinarian world intersects with oncology. For instance, in chapter three, “Do Dogs Get Melanoma?Philip Bergman, PhD, is a veterinarian specializing in canine cancer. Dr. Bergman did his fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he studied human cancer biology to give him a better understanding of the disease he planned to treat in dogs.

In 1999, Dr. Bergman was attending a dinner for cancer researchers at the Princeton Club in New York when a man at his table turned and asked, “Do dogs get melanoma?” The man behind the question was Jedd Wolchok, MD, an oncology researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center—no stranger to the readers of The ASCO Post. At the time, Dr. Wolchok was working on an immunologic approach to treating melanoma called xenogeneic plasmid DNA vaccination, which used human tyrosinase to initiate an immune response to kill melanoma cells. The approach had produced surprisingly good results in mouse models, and now he wanted to test his immunotherapy in dogs.

After a brief discussion, Drs. Bergman and Wolchok entered a clinical partnership, which was capped by a successful trial using dogs with melanoma as its subjects. Both intrepid researchers were honored for their contributions. Dr. Wolchok summed up the partnership: “We were both considered bright young investigators who trained at prominent institutions and we had every reason to be egomaniacal. But that was not part of our DNA…. We were not in this to make a name for ourselves; we were committed to the bigger goal of helping patients and advancing science.”

Readers will find this and other veterinarian-oncologist partnerships interesting and rewarding. This moderately sized book is chock-full of thought-provoking data-backed stories, in which experts in canine and human cancer weigh in. Moreover, their quotes add to the legitimacy of the content, never feeling like they were injected as celebrity window dressing.

A Rescue Dog With Mammary Cancer

One chapter in this fine book, called “Cali’s Total Mastectomy,” deserves a special mention. It tells the story and clinical history of a rescue dog named Cali, who at 6 years old was diagnosed with late-stage mammary cancer, which is the most prevalent tumor in female dogs.

“Mammary cancer bears a remarkable resemblance to breast cancer. For example, mammary tumors in dogs are often driven by estrogen, and BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations have been found in English Springer Spaniels with mammary tumors. The dog provides us a snapshot of the entire continuum from benign to malignant…offering incredible possibilities for the development of new drugs,” writes the author.

Cali’s journey from diagnosis to mastectomy and adjuvant therapy into survivorship is done without overarching sentimentality. The dog and her care team would make the oncology community proud.

Ms. Weintraub has produced a fine book about the hope and possibilities that abound in today’s era of cancer research and treatment. This book is highly recommended for the readers of The ASCO Post, especially dog lovers. ■