Thursday, October 24, 2013

Comparative oncology: How understanding and treating cancer in human and animal patients can benefit both

Beata Uvjari holds a Tasmanian Devil. Techniques developed to identify structural variation in cancer genomes may help solve the mystery of the Tasmanian Devil facial tumour disease.
Clinical trials are common in the field of oncology – whether the patient is human or animal. When conventional treatments fail, it is not uncommon for specialists to reach for a novel or experimental drug, with informed consent of the patient or pet owner of course. A number of my patients, under supervision of a veterinary oncologist, have benefitted from access to such treatments. I know friends and family members of the human variety who have also benefitted because of such treatments. [I would hasten to add that not all patients benefit, and that decisions to use novel or experimental treatments need to be made carefully, on the best available evidence, weighing up the best interests of the patient. I also think it is important to manage expectations as some patients expect novel drugs to be a "wonderdrug". This is rarely the case].

Comparative oncology is about sharing information between researchers working in the field of human oncology, and those working with animals including veterinarians. Drugs that attack cancer cells effectively in animals don’t always translate well to humans – and vice versa – but they can.

SAT interviewed Beata Uvjari, from the University of Sydney’s Comparative Oncology Special Interest Group (CO-SIG) of the Cancer Research Network, a group dedicated to maximising our knowledge by looking at cancer across all species.

What is comparative oncology?

Comparative oncology is a multidisciplinary approach to exploit animal tumours as models in order to increase our understanding of basic cancer mechanisms as well as their treatment. Naturally occurring cancers of animals share biological, clinical and therapeutic similarities to human cancers.

What is CO-SIG and who is involved?

The Comparative Oncology Special Interest Group (CO-SIG) of the Cancer Research Network (University of Sydney), hosted by the Faculty of Veterinary Science, was established in 2012 as a multidisciplinary biomedical and diagnostic pipeline linking clinicians, oncologists, epidemiologists and molecular researchers, pursuing broad-based clinical and interdisciplinary approaches for an increased understanding and treatment of cancer in all species.

The researchers and clinicians at the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences investigate a range of spontaneously occurring animal cancers, which provide excellent opportunities for clinical trials and biological studies and allow early and humane testing of novel therapies.

This is an oral melanoma in a canine patient, anaesthetised for biopsy. This patient was treated surgically and with a novel vaccine under the guidance of a veterinary oncologist, and lived much longer (and much more comfortably) than he would otherwise.
What does the CO-SIG group actually do?

The members of the CO-SIG propose to meet four times a year, and to invite speakers from both animal and human cancer disciplines to showcase cancer research and developments, and to increase awareness for collaboration across disciplines.  Students and members of the academic community are encouraged to attend the meetings to foster networking and mentoring with experienced researchers. 

What are some of the current topical issues in comparative oncology?

Some of the most exciting topics of comparative oncology have been presented by our recent speakers Prof. Tony Papenfuss (WEHI, Australia) and Prof. Chand Khanna (NCI, USA).  Prof. Papenfuss has talked about the use of next generational sequencing technology in analysing structural variation in cancer genomes and how computational comparative genomics can help to solve the mystery of a contagious cancer, the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease.  

Another important link between human and animal cancers was presented by Prof. Khanna who has been using canine tumour cross-species genomics to uncover targets linked to osteosarcoma progression.  The survival for newly diagnosed osteosarcoma, the most common type of bone cancer, has not significantly changed over the last two decades; therefore understanding the mechanisms of metastasis of this aggressive paediatric cancer is urgently needed.  Given the accelerated biology of canine osteosarcomas, clinically affected pet dogs provide opportunities to study the development and progression of pulmonary metastasis.

A parallel oligonucleotidearray analysis of human and canine osteosarcomas could not only distinguish between the canine and human diseases, but identified two potential target genes IL-8, SLC013, which have been previously overlooked as diagnostic and therapeutic markers in human osteosarcomas.  Dr. Khanna’s results demonstrate the importance of a comparative oncology approach to improve our understanding of cancer biology and therapies.

Comparative oncology also has an important and essential role in cancer drug development. Traditionally, new drugs are evaluated in conventional preclinical models prior to human clinical trials. Canine patients could provide an integrated approach to translational drug development by being an intermediary between conventional preclinical models and the human clinical trial – and pet dogs treated with trial drugs can benefit from new treatments.

Use of novel treatments in animal patients provides additional information, such as dose, toxicity, pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics. [Ed - The decision to trial a drug on a canine patient is always undertaken with owner consent. No veterinarian or veterinary oncologist would advocate use of a drug on a trial basis that did not have a significant chance of benefitting the patient].

The importance of an integrated approach to cancer drug development is also highlighted by the work of our current speaker Dr. Chris Weir who has developed a cancer vaccine which has the potential to improve life expectancy and survival rates of patients suffering from brain tumours.  

Dr. Weir used cells from individual tumours, creating a unique and personalised vaccine for each canine patient. The vaccine successfully slowed the growth of tumours, helped prevent new ones from developing and prolonged the lives of the canine patients, some diagnosed with advanced cancers. The success of the canine trials opens up opportunities for human clinical studies, and gives hope to both canine and human cancer sufferers

These eminent studies provide strong evidence how a comparative approach to cancer could lead to the identification of cancer-associated genes, help the identification of environmental cancer risk factors, and most importantly, aid the evaluation and development of novel cancer therapeutics for human and animal patients.

Who can become involved?

Anybody who is interested in animal or human cancers, or just would like to learn about cancer research, is welcome to join us, our meetings are open to public.

To become formally involved with the Special Interest Group, one has to join the University of Sydney’s Cancer Research Network:

Formal membership is open to employees of the University of Sydney, people employed by teaching hospitals and Institutes of the University of Sydney, or people holding an academic title award from the University of Sydney, who are active in the area of cancer research.  Membership is also open to postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate research students enrolled at the University of Sydney who are doing research in the area of cancer. Further details can be found at:

Non-University of Sydney employees are also welcome to join us at our meetings, please email the chair of CO-SIG, Dr. Beata Ujvari ( for further information.

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