The Comparative Oncology Program at the National Institutes of Health is celebrating its 20th anniversary of advancing the study of cancer in dogs to help canine and human patients. AVMA News spoke with the founding and current directors of the program and two other veterinarians in the field of canine comparative oncology about their work and the importance of the program. This is the first article in a three-part series.

NIH program in canine comparative oncology marks 20 years of progress

Comparative Oncology Program advances the study of cancer in dogs to help canine and human patients

Two decades ago, Dr. Chand Khanna proposed what might have seemed like a radical idea: creating a program at the National Institutes of Health to promote the study of naturally occurring cancer in dogs.

Dr. Khanna
Dr. Chand Khanna

At the time, Dr. Khanna was a practicing veterinary oncologist as well as a postdoctoral fellow at the NIH National Cancer Institute studying metastasis in osteosarcoma. He convinced his bosses of the concept of studying canine cancer as a model for human cancer to improve treatment for canine and human patients alike.

This year, the Comparative Oncology Program within the NCI Center for Cancer Research is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The program features the Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium, a network of academic centers in comparative oncology.

“If I was to reflect on 20 years of comparative oncology, there’s a couple of things that have happened,” said Dr. Khanna, who went on to become the first director of the Comparative Oncology Program. First of all, “It’s not as crazy an idea, whereas when people would hear about this idea, it was often from me first. And now they’ve heard about if from many other people, and it’s not so crazy.

“And something I had to get used to was that I now hear nonveterinarians talking about comparative oncology with high praise and interest,” particularly physicians.

Dr. Khanna said the first step for the Comparative Oncology Program was to create the structure to bring veterinary colleges with expertise in oncology together as the Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium.

Then, getting off the ground, the first study through the program showed that a treatment could deliver tumor necrosis factor to destroy the blood vessels of tumors in dogs rather than the blood vessels of normal tissue. The study, published in PLOS One in 2009, also demonstrated that the consortium could recruit patients and provide results that couldn’t be provided by studies in mice or humans.

Thereafter, the program was able to bring in biopharmaceutical partners and other organizations to fund studies in dogs.

Rescued dog with tripedalism in public park
Treatment for osteosarcoma in dogs generally involves amputation and chemotherapy, but most still die of metastasis. The Comparative Oncology Program at the National Institutes of Health worked with the Morris Animal Foundation on a trial evaluating a vaccine for osteosarcoma in dogs. The same vaccine platform is now being used in clinical trials in children.

That particular treatment has moved on to clinical trials in humans. Other treatments developed via the program also are being used in clinical trials in humans but are not yet approved.

“You have to show that the drug is doing what you intend it to do as a means to keep the ball rolling, and that’s when the dog trials are important and necessary,” Dr. Khanna said.

The research findings of comparative oncology studies have created new knowledge that enabled the development of drugs on the veterinary side, he said.

Dr. Khanna said there is “a generation of young veterinary oncologists who have grown up believing that it’s just a given that the National Cancer Institute endorses their field of research by having a comparative oncology program,” and this generation is aspiring to greater things.

He added that the growth of the field has resulted in human-centric research organizations building internal resources to facilitate comparative oncology. Dr. Khanna chairs the Strategic Advisory Board for the Osteosarcoma Institute, which is funding osteosarcoma research in dogs.

Currently, Dr. Khanna is president of Ethos Discovery, a nonprofit incubator of scientific innovation, and chief science officer of Ethos Veterinary Health, a national veterinary company focused on emergency and specialty veterinary medicine. He said the work of Ethos Discovery is a natural expansion of the work in comparative oncology into other complex medical problems in pets and people, continuing to include cancer.

Despite Dr. Khanna’s many roles, “I would say I’m a clinician first,” he said. With his research, he said, “I don’t want to use dogs, I want to include dogs, so that the dogs and their owners are given the same options for innovation that human cancer patients are given in the form of access to clinical trials.”

The AVMA Animal Health Studies Database connects veterinarians and animal owners with clinical trials for animals, including research relating to cancer in dogs.