The Jackson Laboratory recently launched the Tallwood Canine Cancer Research Initiative, in which tumor samples from dogs will be collected to create patient-derived xenografts in mice. These models, and their accompanying genome sequences, can then be shared with researchers around the world. The initiative's goal is to learn more about the biology of human cancers through comparative genomic analyses.

The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) recently launched a program that aims to provide insights into cancer in humans by shining a light on tumors in their best friends: dogs. A $500,000 donation from an anonymous donor has funded a new canine biobank that will allow scientists to study cancer in an animal that offers several significant benefits.


Patrick, a healthy Irish wolfhound, was the first dog to have a tissue sample added to a new canine biobank. He belongs to an anonymous family that donated $500,000 to fund the initiative.

Charles Lee, PhD, scientific director and professor at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, CT, says that in the short time since the Tallwood Canine Cancer Research Initiative was announced, they have heard from several veterinary practices, as well as from researchers at the NIH and Tufts University in Medford, MA, who are interested in collaborating on projects involving both human and canine cancers.

To create the biobank, JAX will work with veterinary clinics across the country to collect healthy and tumor tissue from their canine patients through voluntary donations from pet owners. The first patient, Patrick, is a healthy Irish wolfhound who belongs to the family who funded this initiative. Researchers at JAX will use donor tumor samples to create patient-derived xenografts (PDX) in mice. These well-characterized models will then be shared with cancer researchers.

Through comparative genomic analyses, these PDXs can be used to learn more about the biology of human cancers, especially those that are rare among humans but common in some breeds of dog. For example, osteosarcomas are 27 times more common in large breeds such as rottweilers, Great Danes, and Irish wolfhounds than in humans, says Lee. “As we study the genomics of these tumors in dogs, we hope to see recurrent mutations in novel genes or associated regulatory elements that would give us new biological insights into the etiology of these same tumor types in humans.”

Dogs possess several other features that make them ideal partners in cancer research. For example, dogs share their owners' environments and spontaneously develop tumors over time, as humans do. Like humans, they exhibit great phenotypic diversity. Furthermore, canine tumor progression often parallels cancer progression in people.

Even so, Daniel Gustafson, PhD, research director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center in Fort Collins, CO, warns that no one should expect canine cancer research to yield human-relevant results immediately.

“Dogs are not small furry people,” he says.“It may not make intuitive sense, but understanding the differences between cancer in dogs and humans is the only way to see the similarities.” He believes the initiative will be especially helpful in understanding the molecular basis of canine cancer, which will establish a foundation for comparative oncology.

The immediate beneficiaries of this research will most likely be dogs. “I have no doubt that the information garnered from these studies will also lead to incredible advances in personalized canine cancer therapy,” says Lee. –Kristin Harper

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