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Dec. 4, 2014 Volume 36, No. 14

Best friends advance medical sciences

Researchers collaborate to improve animal and human health


“When we started looking at genetics of cancer, it became clear that a lot of the same things that underlie human cancers underlie canine cancers,” said Jeffrey Bryan, associate professor of oncology in veterinary medicine. Photo by Karen Clifford.

The special bond between dog and human is undeniable. And yet it goes beyond companionship and animal service. The two species share similar anatomy, physiology and genes, and overlap in health maladies and treatments, especially when it comes to cancer.

At the University of Missouri, collaboration between human and animal medical researchers helped develop Quadramet, a pain reliever for bone cancer patients. It was tested on dogs at the College of Veterinary Medicine in the 1990s before beginning human clinical trials. Today, Quadramet is widely accepted as a successful treatment for both species.

But despite advancements in the field, comparative medicine catches some physicians by surprise. In October 2013, Shahzad Raza, a physician at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, attended the Veterinary Cancer Society conference in Minneapolis. Raza, one of the few MDs among hundreds of veterinarians in attendance, was shocked by the similarities between human and animal health.

Over subsequent months, Raza worked closely with MU’s veterinary medicine scientists. He was intrigued by their imaginative use of the FDG agent (18F-fluordeoxyglucose) in standard PET scans on dogs. By adopting the scanning methods for human patients with lung cancer, physicians might be able to more accurately pinpoint the degree of oncological treatment needed, Raza said. His research has received attention from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

“Success depends on collaboration,” Raza said. “For every success, you need a team. You have to have a lot of brainpower at the table.”

More Than Best Friend

MU faculty from veterinary medicine, University of Missouri Health Care, the Bond Life Sciences Center and other units collaborate to advance comparative medicine. Mizzou Advantage’s initiative in One Health/One Medicine is dedicated to fostering knowledge sharing to improve the health of all species. Perhaps the most compelling human-animal research at MU involves Homo sapiens and Canis familiaris — people and their tail-wagging best friends.

Dog-human comparative medicine has been around for decades but usually on a small scale. Lack of scientific study and clinical trials created gaps that slowed progress in the field. Then the field bounded forward with the mapping of genomes for humans in 2003 and domesticated dogs in 2005. At the time, MU was one of only eight institutions selected for inclusion in the National Cancer Institute’s Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium, whose goal is to establish crossover treatments in canine and human oncology.

“When we started looking at genetics of cancer, it became clear that a lot of the same things that underlie human cancers underlie canine cancers,” said Jeffrey Bryan, associate professor of oncology in veterinary medicine.

Humans and domesticated dogs also share the same environment and its attendant health dangers, such as ecological pollutants, secondhand smoke and mineral contamination. “Dogs with naturally occurring cancers likely have those cancers for a lot of the same environmental reasons as their human counterparts,” Bryan said.

Though lab rodents can be useful in cancer research, limitations exist. Besides not sharing the same environment as humans, their immune system works differently, and their genes must be artificially manipulated to mimic human cancer.

But Fido is not an anonymous lab rat. Dogs that participate in placebo control groups will also take part in active drug trials. “We intentionally design trials so that every dog stands to benefit,” Bryan said.

The research continues. Scientists at MU’s Comparative Orthopaedic Laboratory have developed live-tissue joint replacements for knees, elbows, shoulders and hips. The procedure, tested on dogs and awaiting human trials, would be an alternative to using plastic and metal joint replacements, which tend to have complications. In addition, a drug developed at MU by pharmacology and physiology Professor Kenneth Gruber to combat cachexia, a wasting illness of cancer patients undergoing radiation or chemotherapy treatment, began canine trials this semester.


Cottrell and Kay Fox enjoy the company of Panda and Rufus at their St. Louis home. Kay Fox’s father, Robert Hebeler, was prescribed Quadramet in 2007 while battling spinal and prostate cancers. One of the couple’s dogs also received the pain reliever. Photo courtesy of the Foxes.

A Case Example

Cottrell and Kay Fox of St. Louis saw firsthand how medicine developed at MU and tested on canines later benefited humans.

In February 2001, the Foxes learned that Molakai, their 12-year-old springer spaniel, had bone cancer. Along with radiation treatment, Molakai received Quadramet to ease crippling pain in her right foreleg. A week after injection of the drug, her appetite returned and she was playful. She lived pain free until her death April 25, 2001. Six years later, Kay Fox’s father, Robert Hebeler of St. Louis, was battling spinal and prostate cancers. In June 2007, doctors prescribed Quadramet. “He felt wonderful after that,” Kay Fox said. He lived in relative comfort until his death Dec. 13, 2007.

On Feb. 11, 2013, the Foxes announced a $5 million estate gift to the College of Veterinary Medicine to support comparative oncology.

“Advances in comparative medicine are limited only by the imaginations of clinicians and researchers,” Bryan said.

— Mark Barna

This article was adapted from a story that first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Mizzou Health.