College of Veterinary Medicine Researchers Seek Breakthrough in Cancer Treatment

Dr. Bruce Smith’s guiding philosophy in the work he does is simple: he wants his patients to die with their cancer, not from cancer. And while curing cancer is not right around the corner, what researchers at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine want is to help their veterinary patients live longer, with hope for the same results for human cancer patients.

“With the current standard of care for osteosarcoma, less than 10 percent of dogs will live more than one year after diagnosis,” Smith said.

Smith wants to improve those odds. Currently, the three primary methods to treat cancer are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Veterinarians admit that, while all can help to treat cancer, none are a pleasant option.

A professor at the college’s Scott-Ritchey Research Center and the director of the Auburn University Research Initiative in Cancer (AURIC), Smith’s latest research uses an oncolytic virus which attacks and kills cancer cells without harming healthy cells. The trials have shown promising results.

“In our recent clinical trial, we saw closer to 25 percent survival past one year, and in one case, one dog lived over two years,” Dr. Smith said.

The main drawback to Dr. Smith’s treatment is that he has to use the same virus in every patient. Just like in humans, every dog’s cancer is unique to the patient. While the virus may work well in one dog, it may not work well in another.

Recently, Smith was contacted by Andrew Hessel, a distinguished research scientist with Autodesk Inc., with an idea that could advance cancer treatment in remarkable ways: what if researchers could tailor the virus to each patient?

Hessel’s research focuses on ‘synthetic biology,’ which essentially allows him to analyze and print DNA molecules with a machine, called a DNA synthesizer. Because DNA is made up of four components, adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine, Hessel can replicate DNA, and customize strands, creating customized oncolytic viruses.

After hearing about Smith’s work, Hessel contacted him, with a proposal to share research, and test how effective it would be to tailor and administer customized viruses to patients. With current methods, it can take years, and a substantial amount of money, to develop a virus that can effectively treat cancer in patients. Hessel hopes that combining Smith’s research with his own will allow them to create viruses in a matter of weeks.

“Andrew told me he wanted to customize the virus to every single patient, based on understanding that patient’s tumor,” Smith said. “I thought he was crazy! Cool, but crazy!”

While moving to clinical trials with this method is still a ways off, Smith hopes that this method of customizing and printing viruses can be achieved within a year.

“I hate timelines, because they never work out the way we hope we will, but I’m confident that we can have complete tests within two years, and ongoing clinical trials within three years,” Smith said. “Hopefully, we’ll have full integration of this method within 10 years.”

Smith emphasized that this isn’t something that he or Hessel want to rush. Stringent health and safety regulations, committee approvals, and budgetary limitations must all be addressed and satisfied before a single dog can be treated. Smith said this is normal, and it’s crucial to keeping patients safe while advancing medicine.

Despite the long road ahead, Smith is optimistic about the potential for the research to give patients, both human and animal, hope for a disease that affects so many.

“It’s amazing: we see dogs with cancer, and people are surprised. Dogs get cancer at the same rates that humans do, and often the same types,” Smith said. “The research Andrew and I are doing ties directly to the concept of One Medicine.

“This research has the potential to shift the paradigm.”

Click here to view a video interview with Smith and Hessel, produced by