New NCI Clinical Trial Program Benefits People and Pets
In the public perception, medical research involving animals is sometimes controversial and misunderstood. But a new program under the auspices of NCI's Center for Cancer Research (CCR) - the Comparative Oncology Program (COP) - may help change that view. "This program will provide pet owners with access to some very novel experimental options if their pet is stricken by cancer," says Dr. Robert Wiltrout, deputy director for science at CCR, "while also providing new information that may ultimately contribute to the treatment of cancer in humans."
COP is headed by Dr. Chand Khanna, a veterinarian and scientist who conducts research on cancer metastasis and basic cancer biology within CCR's Pediatric Oncology Branch. "Both before and during the clinical development of a new drug, there are many questions to be answered," says Dr. Khanna. "What we're suggesting is that we integrate these complicated, large-animal models with naturally occurring cancers to help answer those questions."
Key to the COP program, he says, is the fact that pet animals, such as dogs, share many features with human cancer patients. Dogs develop cancer spontaneously, share environmental risk factors with their human owners, and their genome is more closely related to humans than that of the mouse, a more typical research model. The types of cancer in dogs that could translate into results for humans include osteosarcoma, breast and prostate cancer, melanoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, head and neck carcinoma, and soft-tissue sarcoma.
These facts have already come to the attention of the clinical trials community. Several veterinary teaching hospitals have agreements with comprehensive cancer centers to conduct comparative oncology trials parallel to human clinical research. But COP will offer the opportunity to conduct research on a much larger level through a consortium of university veterinary teaching hospitals.
"The goal is for the consortium members to start with small trials that answer questions about the biology and activity of a drug, with the help of NCI, but then to take the results towards larger trials, often working directly with pharmaceutical companies," says Dr. Khanna. "So far, we've had a very positive response from colleges of veterinary medicine, the FDA, and the pharmaceutical industry."
The COP consortium is still being developed, but Dr. Khanna plans to invite veterinary teaching hospitals around the country - and even overseas - to participate. "This organizational structure would greatly enhance our abilities to streamline the development of novel therapeutics," says Dr. David Vail, a veterinarian and professor of oncology at Colorado State University's Animal Cancer Center. "Pet owners, in general, are more than willing to enroll their companion animals in a clinical trial to pursue an honest and aggressive new approach to cancer, provided we can maintain good quality of life, and they are equally devoted to the creation of new information and treatments that could someday help people."
So what does COP mean for pet owners? Initially, explains Dr. Khanna, someone whose dog is diagnosed with cancer may be referred by their veterinarian to a local veterinary teaching hospital. If that hospital is a member of the COP consortium and is participating in a clinical trial for that dog's cancer diagnosis, the owner will have the option of enrolling their pet. Although these trials will be organized by COP staff at NCI, the animal patients will not be seen at the NIH campus, but at the veterinary teaching hospitals participating in the COP consortium. The COP Web site will eventually feature a list of all of the trials sponsored at the various consortium hospitals.
Conventional cancer treatments can cost thousands of dollars - Dr. Khanna estimates between $4,000 and $7,000 for a dog, though it can be much higher - but the COP trials are expected to be very low-cost, or free. "It is likely that pet owners will be asked to pay only for the initial evaluation, in the range of a couple of hundred dollars," he says.
Dr. Khanna also notes that COP trials will not be limited to the size or breed of dog, but rather by the type of cancer that a dog has. "Cats could be considered for these trials down the road, but at this point, we know a lot more about dogs. Their metabolism is much closer to that of humans, and there are more reagents available for them."
By Brittany Moya del Pino