February 21, 2024

Cancer research helps humans and pets

Two people talking next to a dog on a table
Dr. David Vail, left, helps a canine patient at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine. Vail works in comparative oncology, investigating cancer diagnostics, treatments and prevention in all species.

As new research continues to improve the care of humans who develop cancer, Dr. David Vail is among those who investigate how these discoveries can also help our furry friends.

Cancer is the number one cause of death for adult dogs and cats, according to Vail, a veterinary oncologist, UW Carbone Cancer Center researcher, and Barbara A. Suran Chair in Comparative Oncology at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine. Part of this increase is due to these companion animals living longer than in the past, as cancer risk rises with age.

“We see it all the time, and for some forms of cancer we don’t have a good standard of care,” Vail said. “I mean, at the end of the day I’m a veterinarian, and so I want to help my patients as well.”

Comparative oncology seeks to investigate cancer diagnostics, treatments and prevention in all species in hopes that new technologies and treatments can be developed faster and translated into both the veterinary care of companion animals as well as preliminary data that can inform human clinical trials.

The most common malignancies in dogs and cats include skin cancer, lymphomas and sarcomas. Because comparative oncology studies animals who naturally develop cancer, Vail looks at the authentic conditions of malignant cell development and spread, as well as the natural state of these animals’ immune systems.

Cancer spreads because it develops a way to circumvent the body’s natural immune response to abnormal cells. Immunotherapy, which jumpstarts the body’s natural immune response to attack or prevent cancer, has become a key tool for human cancer care. Vail, along with fellow cancer researchers at UW Carbone, runs clinical trials in companion species using new immunotherapies with the hope of improving care in both veterinary and human patients.

“Unfortunately, just like the rest of our body as we get older, not only do joints get tired and our organ systems get tired, our immune system gets tired as well and stops doing what it was set up to do,” Vail said. “And so a lot of our research is trying to make an old immune system young again.”

According to Vail, there are cancer types that are remarkably similar between humans and dogs. One example is how bone cancer, which is most common in children and young adults, can be almost indistinguishable from canine bone cancer at a microscopic level.

There are also certain cancer-driving mutations at the cellular level that are shared between different types of dog and human cancers. One example is a mutation of the c-Kit gene, which is a driver mutation for gastrointestinal stromal tumors in humans as well as for mast cell tumors in dogs.

“So even though, histologically, the tumors are totally different, the target is the same, and so the drugs that were developed for people that target that mutation were actually co-developed and preclinically investigated in dogs with mast cell tumors,” Vail said. “So even though it’s a totally different tumor type, the target was the same, so we informed the human clinical trials for drugs that are now available to help people.”

Vail collaborates with several UW Carbone human cancer researchers, including Drs. Paul Sondel, Zachary Morris, Jamey Weichert and Mark Albertini. In addition to treatment research, Vail is also focused on improving methods of early detection and cancer prevention.

Vail has 30 years of experience in comparative oncology — he started working in the field during his master’s degree study at Colorado State University. At the time, it was a more novel field of science that few academic centers offered. It has since grown exponentially, in terms of available funding and the number of research programs around the country.

Vail said the demonstrated value of that research, benefiting both humans and animals, as well as people’s attitudes towards pets has helped fuel that growth.

“This comparative approach is truly a bidirectional approach, and everybody has the potential to win,” Vail said. “This whole approach brings many, many super-talented people together to try and solve this common underlying problem of a hundred different diseases that we call cancer.”