Vets Fight Cancer
How do Auburn vets fight cancer? Like a tiger, we hold nothing back in the battle against cancer. We are fully committed to improving life for people and animals, and we work every day to ensure each animal and human have the care and tools they need to fight cancer like a tiger.
Our mission is to improve quality of life for all humans and animals. To fulfill this mission, Auburn Vet Med clinicians diagnose and treat large and small cancer patients to extend and improve quality of life for our animal patients. Researchers are conducting research and clinical trial initiatives that are bridging the gap between human and animal medicine and perform studies that investigate new diagnostics and treatments. Due to the similar genetic makeup of humans and animals, these discoveries are often able to be applied to medicine across all species — so discovering what we have in common may just lead to a cure.
People and animals share many things — unfortunately, this also includes cancer. Cancer initiatives in Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine integrate advanced research and clinical trials, with state-of-the-art surgical and non-invasive treatments for animal patients, creating a dynamic alliance in the fight against cancer for both humans and animals.
The Auburn Vet Med’s Oncology Service helps animals diagnosed with cancer achieve longer, happier lives. While a cure is not possible in every cancer diagnosis, usually some form of therapy can improve the animal’s quality of life. The Oncology Service offers specialized tests for the diagnosis of cancer in both large and small animal patients including imaging (digital radiography, ultrasound, CT scans, MRI and nuclear medicine), lymphography, biopsies, cytology and flow cytometry along with other molecular diagnostics. Treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, injectable and oral chemotherapy, immunotherapy and electrochemotherapy. A state-of-the-art Varian Edge linear accelerator was installed in 2019 to precisely target tumors using intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) or stereotactic radiation therapy (SRT) without surgery.
Dr. Nancy Merner
Dr. Merner’s Gene Machine team has developed a cancer genetics research program in the College of Veterinary Medicine that focuses on identifying genetic risk variants of hereditary cancer syndromes. Of particular interest are syndromes associated with an increased risk of breast cancer since approximately 65% of hereditary breast cancer cases remain genetically unsolved, despite years of extensive research. IRB-approved recruitment mechanisms have been developed to identify and enroll individuals into this genetic study, which includes both hospital and community-based recruitment (CBR) protocols — the latter being a unique approach that involves traveling across Alabama in The Gene Machine. The Gene Machine’s mission is to reach out to the medically underserved in efforts to educate, build trust and, ultimately, provide opportunities which ordinarily would not be available to underprivileged individuals to participate in this type of critical research study that could directly affect their communities.
Immuno-oncology and Immunotherapy Research
Dr. Sandey’s research focuses on developing novel nanobody-based immunotherapeutics and diagnostics for cancer patients. Cancer is one of the most common causes of death in the geriatric dog population. The mean survival time and overall survival for canine patients with various cancers are still very poor. The immunotherapeutics developed by Dr. Sandey’s team target the critical control checkpoints in the immune response that allow the body to mount an effective anti-cancer attack. This team’s first patented drug strongly activates the immune cells by blocking the immune-suppressive signaling and a novel bispecific platform is currently being bioengineered to concurrently target two pathways. These bispecific molecules can block the immunosuppressive signals while activating the immune-stimulatory pathways. This novel bispecific platform will better manipulate the patient’s immune response to mount an effective attack against cancer cells. The treatment of canine cancer patients with these novel immunotherapeutics will improve both mean survival times and overall patient survival. Moreover, cancer in dogs has similar pathological/molecular characteristics, transcriptome/immune profiles, and clinical presentation to human patients. Thus, these novel immunotherapeutics developed to treat canine patients can benefit both humans and animals, providing dogs with access to cutting-edge cancer treatments while ensuring that humans are given treatments with higher rates of success.
Dr. Payal Agarwal
Here in the Scott-Ritchey Research Center, Drs. Smith and Agarwal are working to create new treatments for cancer based on a precision medicine approach. That is, the treatments are tailored specifically to each individual tumor. The research predominantly focuses on canine tumors, both because canines need new cancer treatments and because dogs are excellent models of humans with respect to cancer, experiencing many of the same tumors as humans, with many of the same genetic defects. Osteosarcoma (bone cancer) and lymphoma (lymph node cancer) are currently being researched, with expansion to other types of tumors on the horizon. The work consists of sequencing the RNA in tumors to better understand the active genes and to identify genes that can be used as targets for treatment. Once identified, engineered viruses are constructed to specifically attack the tumor cells. These viruses are modified so that they only infect, replicate in and kill tumor cells with no harm to normal cells. Recent research in dogs and humans has shown that the virus alone is not enough to kill the entire tumor, so activating the body’s immune system to help is critical. New research is being conducted to teach the immune system how to wake up, recognize and kill tumor cells, so this technology can be integrated into the tumor-targeting viruses.
The Canine Immunoneurotherapeutics Trial (CANINE) uses human therapies to treat and study canine brain tumors. Dogs and humans develop biologically similar malignant brain tumors at similar rates. This trial allows us to provide compassionate care to animals, advance the field of veterinary medicine and better understand the biological effects of treatment.
Comparison of Sentinel Lymph Node Mapping Patterns in Dogs
Mast cell tumors (MCTs) are the most common skin tumors in dogs. These tumors spread through the lymphatic system; therefore, identification of the first lymph node that drains the tumor is important in determining metastasis or spread of tumor cells. The goal of this study is to determine if the similarity between the sentinel lymph node (SLN) before and after surgical removal of the MCTs. If we can retroactively identify the SLN in dogs who have had their MCTs previously removed, then we can identify a larger subset of dogs with metastatic disease. These dogs can therefore be offered additional treatment which may ultimately improve survivability.
A Phase I Study of M032, a Genetically Engineered HSV- Expressing IL-12, in Canine Patients with Malignant Glial Brain Tumors
Some dogs are affected by brain cancer — particularly a brain tumor called a glioma — similar to brain tumors in humans. In both dogs and humans, there are limited options for treatment of this tumor type and the options available have not been shown to result in a long-term survival after tumor diagnosis. This study will help veterinarians determine if a modified virus — that has been shown to destroy cancer cells while leaving normal cells unharmed in humans — injected into gliomas during surgery will cause destruction of the tumor and improve survival in dogs with gliomas.