Is it cancer or is it IBD? It’s a question that has puzzled veterinarians for years. In cats, both Gastrointestinal (GI) lymphoma and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) present with chronic diarrhea and vomiting. While IBD is the most common reason for these symptoms, veterinarians do not have an effective method to confirm IBD or rule out GI lymphoma. A lack of research into the root cause(s) of these conditions (diet, environmental toxins, viruses or bacteria, genetics, etc.) leaves open questions about the best way to treat patients.

The Feline Cancer Core, a multidisciplinary team of scientists from Colorado State University, recently joined forces to study critical questions surrounding these diseases. Principal investigator Dr. Craig Webb, professor of small animal medicine at CSU’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, leads the team.

“We’re hoping to find answers to some big questions, including what causes this cancer in cats and is there a relationship between IBD and GI lymphoma,” said Webb.

Four key questions

The Feline Cancer Core team is seeking answers to:

  1. What is the best way to confidently distinguish between feline IBD and feline GI lymphoma?
  2. What genetic and environmental factors contribute to the development of IBD and lymphoma?
  3. Does chronic feline IBD progress or transform into feline GI lymphoma over time?
  4. What therapies can be developed to treat IBD and GI lymphoma?

Those big questions require big thinking and a great team. According to Craig Webb, Cancer Core investigators bring a wealth of experience and expertise. In addition to his work using stem cells to treat cats with IBD, co-investigator Tracy Webb has an extensive background in GI immunology. Avery, a veterinary pathologist, has spent much of her career studying lymphoma while VandeWoude is a feline infectious disease specialist.

“One exciting aspect of this project for me is that we are addressing a complex challenge in veterinary medicine with a collaborative, ‘Team Science’ approach to enhance our chance of success,” said Tracy Webb.

Cats helping people? 

Prior to leading this project, Craig and Tracy Webb have been exploring the use of stem cells to treat cats with IBD. Their work was based on treatment protocols for people suffering from forms of IBD, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. They believe the Feline Cancer Core project holds tremendous translational value as his colleagues in human medicine have been struggling with similar questions.

“When you simply remove the word feline from our study questions, you have translated this project into one that has a direct and significant impact on the human condition,” said Craig Webb.

In particular, the project’s focus on environmental triggers may prove very relevant to people.

“Cats live in the same environment as their owners, breathe the same air, drink the same water,” said Craig Webb. “Through our study, we may find triggers that place both cats and people at higher risk for developing disease.”

Next Steps

Over the last few months, the project has moved from concept to phase one implementation. Laboratory space is ready to go and several new pieces of critical equipment are in place. Most importantly, the project recently received Clinical Review Board approval allowing them to start enrolling patients. The goal is to recruit 100 owner enrolled cats diagnosed with either IBD or GI lymphoma over the next two years.

“The study is planned to be large scale in hopes that we can get significant results and truly make a difference in cats and other species as well,” said Tracy Webb.

“Our infrastructure is ready to go,” said Craig Webb. “All we need now are the cats.”

To learn more about enrollment, please contact, Dr. Craig Webb,

About the Feline Cancer Core

In late 2018, thanks to private philanthropy, a team of Colorado State University scientists united to study critical questions surrounding GI lymphoma and IBD in cats.

The project is led by principal investigator Dr. Craig Webb (from left, above). Co-investigators include Dr. Tracy Webb, research scientist, Department of Clinical Sciences; Dr. Anne Avery, professor, Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology Department; and Dr. Sue VandeWoude, professor of comparative medicine and Associate Dean of Research for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Additionally, staff from the Flint Animal Cancer Center, the Translational Medicine Institute, the Center for Companion Animal Studies, and the Veterinary Teaching Hospital will offer support.

The goal of the Feline Cancer Core is to provide the technical and intellectual resources needed to methodically evaluate how to best distinguish, diagnose, and treat feline IBD and feline GI lymphoma.