Bone cancer successfully treated with canine tumor vaccine


Ruby has always been an active dog. When Kristen Constable and her family returned home from vacation and discovered that their beloved greyhound was limping, they assumed that Ruby had simply injured himself playing. Nothing too serious.

However, a trip to the family vet resulted in a referral to the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, leading to a devastating diagnosis – Ruby had osteosarcoma, a common type of bone cancer in canine. The prognosis was bleak, probably less than a year after amputation of the cancerous limb and several rounds of chemotherapy, not to mention the side effects associated with it. The constables were dejected.

Brian Flesner, Assistant Professor of Oncology, and Jeffrey Bryan, Professor of Oncology at MU College of Veterinary Medicine, and their team offered the family an alternative. Ruby could be in a unique study to advance patient-specific, precise medical treatment for bone cancer in dogs.

That was more than three years ago.

Today, 12-year-old Ruby is living proof that Bryan and his research team have developed an exciting new way to treat osteosarcoma in dogs that can significantly extend the lives of some patients without chemotherapy. MU scientists developed a vaccine from a canine tumor and worked with developers ELIAS Animal Health to fight certain cancer cells, avoid the toxic side effects of chemotherapy, while also opening the door for future human clinical trials. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently put the process on the fast lane to treat a form of cancer in humans called glioblastoma multiforme, or GBM.

“What we learned in this dog study – the successes and failures – already tells what is being done in human studies,” said Bryan. “We hope to expand the types of cancer that we treat with this method.”

Precision medicine – or patient-tailored treatments like the vaccine and cell treatment Ruby received – will be a key component of the NextGen Precision Health Initiative, helping accelerate medical breakthroughs for patients in Missouri and beyond. Precision medicine can be based on your own DNA or, in Ruby’s case, on certain tumors that grow in your own body. The NextGen Precision Health Institute is scheduled to open in autumn 2021.

Osteosarcoma is not common in humans and only represents about 800 to 900 new cases per year in the United States. About half of these cases are reported in children and adolescents. The disease is far more common in dogs – especially large dogs – with more than 10,000 cases per year in the US.

In Bryan’s study, the researchers used the dog’s own tumor to develop a vaccine, which was then injected into the patient to stimulate anti-tumor lymphocytes. The lymphocytes were then collected by ELIAS and expanded outside the body to create a transfusion of the patient’s immune cells.

Bryan is studying a dog at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, where students are part of his research team.

“Essentially, the lymphocytes are exposed to chemicals that make them very angry and ready to attack the target cells,” said Bryan. “Then we transfuse them back into the patient’s blood as if we were doing a blood transfusion.”

The result: angry lymphocytes chase the cancer cells and kill them. The entire process is completed in about seven to eight weeks. Overall, dogs like Ruby who received the vaccine had more than 400 days of remission compared to about 270 days in dogs who received chemotherapy in a separate study from the National Cancer Institute. In the near future, researchers are planning a similar patient-specific, precision medicine study to treat melanoma in dogs, according to Bryan.

For Constable, the gratitude of still having Ruby is eclipsed by the joy of seeing her run across the yard and jump in the air for a toy.

“Honestly,” she said, “you couldn’t ask for a better dog than Ruby.”

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