Biomedical research takes a long time… Way too long for patients anxiously waiting for treatments that can keep them alive or spare them agony. So, here is an idea. How about switching research’s typical drawn-out, excruciating timeline to dog years. Dog years?
Folk wisdom has it that, since humans live on average seven times longer than dogs, 1 dog year = 7 human years. Scientists may debate the accuracy of this equivalency, but most people agree that humans live many times longer than their furry friends. And, as it happens, these friends have features that uniquely qualify them to help us speed biomedical research.
Consider this: most dogs will develop cancer, and their tumors are remarkably similar to those of humans. For instance, osteosarcoma is a deadly bone cancer that affects both children and dogs. Dr. Nicola Mason, a Professor of Pathobiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, has shown that its genetic profile in both species is indistinguishable. Similar findings have been made for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain tumors, melanoma, blood tumors, breast cancer, bladder cancer, and prostate cancer.
Biomedical scientists commonly use mice to study diseases and test drugs. The problem is that mice are not humans—only a gross approximation. “We have cured mice of cancer for decades—and it simply didn’t work in humans.” Or, as Harvard Professor George Whitesides once put it: “Whatever else you may think of me, I am not a large, hairless mouse.”
According to Dr. Matthew Breen, Professor of Comparative Oncology Genetics at North Carolina State University, 1.7 million humans are diagnosed with the most common cancers each year (Figure 1). For dogs, the corresponding figure is over 4.2 million. And it is not just cancer; dogs are susceptible to arthritis, diabetes, obesity, and other human scourges. They also share the same microbiome and inhabit the same environment. Many of the drivers that shape our health also shape theirs.
So, it is no wonder that some scientists, frustrated with the irrelevance of many mouse experiments to human health, have started to take things into their hands. Some of them met last week at the initiative of the Canines-N-Kids Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to joining hands-and-paws in battling childhood cancers. Roughly 16,000 children are diagnosed annually with cancer in the United States, but the development of new medicines for pediatric patients remains painfully slow. These leaders—who hail from academia, NIH, startups, and big pharma—were not short of ideas on how to change this. One startup, The One Health Company, is recruiting dogs across 105 trial sites to enroll them in trials when they present with diseases. The Morris Animal Foundation and Dr. Tim Fan, Professor of Medical Oncology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are running the innovative 5/5/5 trial to test 5 drugs, in 5 years, for less than $5 million. Dr. Matthew Breen is collecting data on five million dogs to build up our knowledge of canine genomics. Others are considering mixed clinical trials with both human and animal treatment groups. The National Cancer Institute is helping by organizing a multi-site comparative oncology trial consortium. And one big pharma company explained how dogs can help improve success rates in drug development, which would benefit humans as well as dogs.