From bark to bedside: Study looks at canine cancer genes, human health impact

June 21, 2010

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State University veterinarians are taking part in a two-year, $5.3 million project to analyze five cancers in dogs, research that could offer new insight into canine cancer genes and their potential impact on the human form of the disease.

The Canine Hereditary Cancer Consortium -- an alliance of veterinarians, scientists, clinicians, nonprofit institutions, universities and industry members -- will focus on purebred dogs, who offer a window into cancer genetics not available with other species, said Barbara Kitchell, director of MSU's Center for Comparative Oncology. She also is a member of the consortium's executive steering committee.

"Because purebred dogs have been selected to have specific physical and behavioral traits, their background genetics, within breeds, are very similar," Kitchell said. "With that 'background noise' suppressed, cancer genes are made more obvious."

The research partnership, entitled From Bark to Bedside, is led by the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids and the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix. Participating research teams are MSU, University of Pennsylvania and Colorado State University, as well as the National Cancer Institute.

As part of the group's research, MSU's Vilma Yuzbasiyan-Gurkan, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics and small animal clinical sciences, specifically is looking at histiocytic sarcomas, which are malignant, soft-tissue tumors that arise from cells in the immune system.

If the tumor is removed before cancer cells spread, the prognosis is good. Once the cancer spreads, most dogs live just a few weeks. The dogs most often affected by this type of cancer are Bernese mountain dogs.

Yuzbasiyan-Gurkan and her team, which includes Matti Kiupel of pathobiology and diagnostic investigations, will rely on a DNA and tumor tissue repository they set up at MSU in 2006 to analyze the gene makeup of Bernese mountain dogs and search for cancer triggers. The MSU repository was established with grant support from the Berner-Garde Foundation and contributions from the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America.

"We established the repository in anticipation of genomic technology developing to a point where it would be affordable for use with dogs," she said. "The timing is now right; this partnership brings the technology and computing power that are significant components of this task."

The project also aims to identify critical pathways that can be targeted by drugs, Kitchell said.

"For example, there may be a genetic change in a tumor that turns on a growth-promoting signal," she said. "We may discover from the arsenal of drugs and chemicals available to us that we can turn off that gene, allowing us to custom-tailor therapies."

There also are potential human benefits in the project, especially where a type of cancer is common in a particular breed of dog but uncommon in people. Because such large numbers are needed to get reliable findings, advances in human treatment are limited by the small number of people affected.

"With purebred dogs, you not only have a larger population with a particular cancer, but, because of these dogs' reduced genetic complexity, there is a better chance of identifying the responsible gene," Yuzbasiyan-Gurkan said. "It's a win-win situation for the dogs and people."

The other canine cancers being analyzed are non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, oral melanoma, osteosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma. The project is funded by a $4.3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute and $500,000 donations from both Pet Smart and Hill's Pet Nutrition.
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For information on how to participate in the MSU part of the study, contact Yuzbasiyan-Gurkan at (517) 884-5351, yuzbasiyan@cvm.msu.edu or berners@cvm.msu.edu. For information on how to participate in other parts of the study, call (616) 234-5569 or e-mail CHCC@vai.org.

Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.

Michigan State University

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