Pet Dogs Help Biotech Startups Find New Weapons to Fight Cancer

7/25/12Follow @arleneweintraub

A few weeks back, a black-and-white terrier mix named Chance entered a clinical trial for a drug that may offer a completely new way to combat cancer—not only in dogs, but in people, too. The drug, made by San Diego-based Genelux, uses a genetically engineered virus to annihilate tumor cells. Genelux made two different versions of the drug and is now testing one in people and other in dogs, as part of a wide-ranging research strategy designed to yield cutting-edge cancer treatments for both man and man’s best friend.

Why dogs? “Cancer as a disease in dogs is as significant as it is in humans,” says Aladar Szalay, founder and CEO of Genelux. “We expect that humans will benefit from the information we obtain from canines.”

Genelux is part of a growing branch of cancer research called comparative oncology. The idea behind comparative oncology is simple: Dogs get many of the same cancers that strike humans, including lymphoma, breast cancer, and bone cancer. But unlike genetically altered laboratory rodents and other animals that are used to test potential new cancer treatments, dogs develop the disease naturally.

There are other reasons that dogs make good study subjects, says Gregory Ogilvie, director of the Angel Care Cancer Center in Carlsbad, CA, and the lead veterinary investigator for the Genelux trial. “We can measure the same things in dogs that we do in people, like blood pressure, heart changes, and organ function,” Ogilvie says. “These data can be applied directly to people.”

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that about 10 percent of the 65 million pet dogs in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer each year. The NCI has sponsored several comparative oncology studies through a network of 20 veterinary schools that trade research insights with each other—and with their human-oncology counterparts at medical schools and pharmaceutical companies.

Genelux, which was founded in 2001, is one of several biotech companies that are enlisting pet dogs in the war on cancer. Genelux’s San Diego neighbor, Polaris Group, is sponsoring a dog trial at the University of California at Davis’s veterinary school. And Boston-area biotechs Karyopharm and Synta Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: SNTA) are both working with Ohio State University’s veterinary college to test new therapeutic approaches in cancer.

In most cases, the companies are not testing exactly the same drug they intend to develop for humans, but rather a different molecule with the same mechanism of action as the human version. The reasons for that are both … Next Page »

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