“Cancer is really a process associated with basic biology,” said Dr. Daniel Gustafson, director of basic research and the Pharmacology Lab at the Flint Animal Cancer Center. “It’s about the cells in your body that for some reason have changed and grown out of control.”
The solutions to most problems start by looking at the root cause. Unfortunately, with cancer, the origins are as varied as is the disease itself. In fact, cancer is not just one disease. To date, more than 200 cancers have been identified. Nevertheless, the answers to cancer start at the cellular level.
May is National Cancer Research Month, launched in 2007 by the American Association for Cancer Research to highlight the importance of lifesaving cancer research. At the Flint Animal Cancer Center, we are honoring the month by highlighting our foundational cancer research program and the critical scientific building blocks that allow for treatment breakthroughs for pets and people with cancer.
“Asking fundamental questions about cancer biology helps us understand the genetic hurdles to overcome,” said Dr. Rodney Page, director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center. “I believe this work will speed up our progress toward conquering cancer in pets and people.”
Analyzing genes to understand cancer behavior
In the Molecular Oncology and Functional Genomics Laboratory led by Dr. Dawn Duval, the focus is on identifying the genetic mutations that drive canine cancers.
“Historically, we’ve had hints about the genetic drivers of canine cancer,” said Duval. “Thanks to technology and lots of work, we’re at the forefront of being able to use the genetic mutations that drive canine cancers to inform how we treat similar cancers in dogs and people.”
Using gene-editing systems, they can knock out one gene at a time and see what happens to the cancer cell. Understanding how specific genes contribute to the tumor behavior (growth or spread) is helpful to inform treatment decisions.
“With the gene-specific data, I think we’re heading quickly toward being able to test new therapeutics more rapidly,” said Duval.
In Dr. Anne Avery’s Clinical Hematopathology Lab, they study leukemia and lymphoma in dogs, which can help inform treatments for similar cancers in people.
“I find it fascinating that dogs have these very breed-specific predilections for different kinds of cancer,” said Avery. “Golden retrievers get indolent T-cell lymphoma, and boxers get this much more aggressive kind of lymphoma and leukemia. I think this is where dogs can offer something that you can’t get as much from human cancer research. These breed-specific problems give us a different way to look at the genetics of these diseases.”
According to Gustafson, the insights provided by scientists like Duval and Avery will help inform better drug therapies.
“We’re looking at ways to use genomics, gene expression, and gene mutation data with human and canine cells to figure out which drugs optimally we could use to treat that disease. Ultimately, our pharmacology lab’s goal is to get the right drug to the right patient. The genetic details will help make that happen.”
Exploring how and why cancer spreads
Dr. Dan Regan has spent the last decade examining the tumor microenvironment and why some sites in the body promote tumor growth. He explains his work with a simple analogy known as the seed and soil theory. He wants to understand how cancer cells (seeds) know where to find welcoming locations to take root (soil).
“Many types of cancer, in both pets and people, spread to the lungs,” said Regan. “Once cancer progresses, we have few treatment options because many times, these metastatic tumors are drug-resistant. My work focuses on looking at tumor metastasis through the lens of the tumor microenvironment.”
By studying the biological changes within the host tissues/organs of metastatic sites, he hopes to identify treatments that can prevent or reverse these changes and restore tumor cell drug sensitivity.
Harnessing the power of the immune system
Dr. Keara Boss is both a clinician and a scientist. She works in the Lucy Oncology Clinic at the Flint Animal Cancer Center to treat patients using today’s best practices in radiation therapy and search for new and better options in the laboratory as a radiation biologist. She’s focused on learning how radiation therapy, in addition to killing tumor cells, can also stimulate the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
“By studying tumor tissue samples before and after radiation and staining them for specific immune cells, we’re finding clues about the effect of radiation therapy on our immune system,” said Boss. “As we gain a better understanding in the lab, hopefully, one day, we can translate what we learn to help patients, both pets and people.”
Dr. Amy MacNeill has taken another approach to kill cancer cells. “I use viruses, specifically, the poxvirus, to kill cancer cells,” said MacNeill.
When she started her research, the possibility of using genetically altered viruses to kill cancer cells was itself a novel approach. In addition to observing the effect on cancer cells, she’s learned that these viruses also stimulate the body’s immune response.
“What we see at the cellular level in the lab is that the healthy cells around the tumor recognize the viral invader and stimulate a strong immune response. Now, it’s not just the virus killing the cancer cells; it’s the body’s immune system killing the cancer cells.”
“I’m proud of our team’s work to look at cancer from every angle,” said Page. “I think their relentless pursuit of understanding cancer biology is paying off in small ways each day and will ultimately lead to next-generation treatments, and one day, a cure.”
Leaders in comparative oncology research
For nearly four decades, the Flint Animal Cancer Center has been at the forefront of understanding the fundamental mechanisms of cancer biology, disease diagnosis, and the development of effective therapies. Our comparative oncology research program houses ten laboratories, 14 areas of research and includes 50+ team members, all on a mission to conquer cancer in all species.
We invite you to partner with us in our journey to answer the fundamental questions that will lead to cancer breakthroughs for pets and people. Please consider a gift to our basic science research program today. Your support provides the funding we need to continue to ask critical questions and chase down the answers. To learn more about this opportunity, please email Torii Kapavik, development director.