Although a cancer diagnosis is certainly scary for us, many are equally frightened by the thought of their pet having an unusual growth. Recent research may be providing new exciting resources in the fight against this deadly disease of pets and people.
If you check the dictionary for the word “cancer”, you will see one definition stating that it is a malignant and invasive growth. But, it’s the second definition that most often causes distress for people. This description reads “any evil condition or thing” and regardless of whether it is a person or pet, this is the meaning that scares us the most.
There are many types of cancer, but humans and dogs share an extremely dangerous type known as a melanoma. Developed through the interaction of genes with the environment, melanoma arises from the pigment producing cells of the skin and can spread to distant organs through the circulatory system. Melanoma is considered to be a dangerous type of cancer because of its rapid spread and resistance to chemotherapy. Treatment in pets and people is often limited, especially in later stages.
Melanoma can frequently be found on the dog’s skin, but it is the oral version of this cancer that is most concerning to veterinarians. Canine malignant melanoma (CMM) is the most common type of oral cancer in the dog and can account for almost 5% of all cancers that veterinarians diagnose. Highly aggressive, this growth can occur simultaneously in the mouth, nail bed, and even the footpads. Caught early, surgery can help treat melanoma, but the outlook is not good for dogs whose cancer is diagnosed late or has spread to other organs.
In the battle to help combat CMM, a unique collaboration has occurred between The Animal Medical Center in New York and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. By studying the effects of an experimental type of vaccine used in dogs with melanoma, both groups hope to determine if this new type of therapy can provide hope to human and canine cancer patients. Since the early part of this decade, more than 350 dogs have received this investigational vaccine and the results have astounded researchers. Previously, a pet diagnosed with malignant melanoma faced a slim 2-3 month life expectancy. The dogs that were treated with the new vaccine, along with surgery and/or radiation, have lived 4 times longer – with some dogs surviving another 3 years!
That novel vaccine used DNA and dogs given the vaccine created antibodies against the proteins coded for by the DNA. This effectively created antibodies against the cancer as well. Using this information, and the knowledge gained through the earlier studies, research is being done by the Animal Medical Center and Merial Animal Health. The studies may be showing this potential treatment to be safe and provide a reasonable expectation of success in the battle against this type of cancer. The USDA has granted Merial a conditional license for a similar DNA vaccine based on comparable technology. This conditional license will help further more studies to hopefully validate the safety and efficacy of this type of vaccine. These remarkable achievements may have paved the way for a commercial use of the “cancer” vaccine for pets in the very near future.
There is no doubt that any abnormal lump or bump on your pet can be very scary, especially with the huge amount of mis-information present on the Internet. Keep in mind that the appearance of a lump does not necessarily mean cancer. Your veterinarian should always be consulted before any treatment decisions are considered. The advent of these new treatment modalities, such as the CMM vaccine, can offer hope to many pet owners. Also surgical, radiation, and chemotherapies could potentially be available for your pet and often are well tolerated by the dog or cat.
Webster is right, cancer may indeed be an “evil thing”, but that does not always mean a lengthy illness or the end of your best friend’s life. Veterinary science is not only helping the pets, but how these studies may actually benefit human patients as well.
Debra Garrison, DVM