Health

Cancer treatment for pooch could help people, too

Rescue dog Smokey's cancer treatment could point way to helping humans, researchers say

Monica Young and Smokey the dog

Smokey high-fives his owner, Monica Young. Smokey is part of a new clinical trial that could benefit dogs and humans. (Kas Roussy/CBC)

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"You wanna sit?" Monica Young asks Smokey, her tan-coloured husky-shepherd cross.

Smokey gives her a high-five instead. He gets a treat in return.

Smokey is a rescue dog. His owners, Young and Will Conlon, got him more than six years ago, and the dog is now a beloved member of the family.

So, when Smokey was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer, Young and Conlon were crushed.

"He'd been experiencing some arm pain for a while, and we weren't sure what it was," said Conlon. "We'd done X-rays, and nothing had been found, so we took him to see a specialist, and they found a bone tumour in his elbow."

Clinical trial for experimental treatment

Because osteosarcoma can spread to other parts of the body quickly, Smokey's right front limb was amputated. But the loss hasn't slowed him down.

On a recent visit to the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, Smokey hobbled enthusiastically toward a familiar face.

Dr. Paul Woods, Ontario Veterinary College, Guelph, Ontario

Dr. Paul Woods checks Smokey's heart rate during a routine check up. Smokey has bone cancer and is part of a clinical trial testing new treatment to prevent his cancer from coming back. (Kas Roussy/CBC)

"Hey Smoke, good to see you again," said Dr. Paul Woods.

Woods is a veterinary medical oncologist at the college. Smokey is one of his regular patients selected to be part of an experimental treatment with rapamycin, a drug that might improve the quality of life for dogs — and people, too.

The college is the only Canadian establishment taking part in the clinical trial, along with 20 U.S. institutions that are part of the National Cancer Institute's Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium.

A total of 160 dogs, about 20 in Guelph, are taking part in the randomized control trial. To be selected, dogs must have been diagnosed with bone cancer, responded well to chemotherapy after amputation and have no other serious health problems or metastasis.

Smokey's cancer hasn't spread, so that makes him a good candidate for the trial, which includes surgery, chemotherapy and rapamycin. The cost of the trial is covered by the Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit foundation in animal research studies.

'We're looking at new ways to say safely, can we delay or, even better, prevent the sarcoma from coming back.' - Paul Woods, veterinary oncologist

Smokey's cancer is similar to the one that killed Terry Fox in 1981. It's common in dogs and common in young adults. It progresses the same way, too.

"Unfortunately … bone cancer comes back pretty fast," says Woods. "So, what we do is start a regimen of chemotherapy to delay how long before that cancer comes back."

Smokey received his fourth and final round of chemotherapy in mid-December at the veterinary college.

Smokey the dog, undergoes chemotherapy

Technicians at the Ontario Veterinary College keep Smokey calm while he gets a chemotherapy treatment. (Kas Roussy/CBC)

"Good boy," said one of the technicians as she administered the injection. Another technician was gently holding Smokey down while yet another stroked his head.

In the new year, Smokey is scheduled to start the rapamycin medication.

Rapamycin isn't a new drug. It has been used for decades to prevent organ transplant rejection. But in this trial, it's being used as a kind of cancer inhibitor to try to cut off the blood supply to tumours and, in the process, stop the cancer from spreading.

"We're looking at new ways to say safely, can we delay or, even better, prevent the sarcoma from coming back," said Woods.

"If we can find a better way to treat [it], that will help similar dogs in the future, but it may also help kids who come back with osteosarcoma as well."

College also treating breast cancer in cats

Man's best friend isn't the only pet that has benefited from the cancer research being done at the Ontario Veterinary College.

Researchers have also treated breast cancer in cats by using new vaccines designed to boost the cat's immune system and kill tumour cells at the same time — although they stopped accepting new subjects for that research six months ago.

Technicians at the Ontario Veterinary College

Researchers at the college are using new vaccines designed to boost the immune system and kill tumour cells in cats with breast cancer. (Ontario Veterinary College)

Researchers hope that finding ways to help cats with breast cancer live longer can lead to better treatments for people with the same disease. 

Woods said results from the clinical trial involving Smokey are probably a couple of years away. Only then, will scientists know whether there are possible benefits for humans.

But already, the dog's owners say it's a win-win.

"We're just extremely excited that he can contribute to research and also benefit from that as well," said Young.

"We're very happy for Smokey to be contributing to a good cause that way," added Conlon.