UQ vets help pets with cancer

1 May 2018
Gus (left) with sisters Skye and Storm
Gus (left) with sisters Skye and Storm

Nine-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback cross Gus has participated in an innovative Australian pilot study for dogs with cancer, which has achieved some positive results.

University of Queensland School of Veterinary Sciencesenior pathologist Associate Professor Rachel Allavenasaid the trial involved directly injecting treatments into the dogs’ tumours.

“The treatments resulted in 20 per cent of the dogs being cured of their cancer,” Dr Allavena said.

“For some of the other dogs, expected survival time was extended, from eight weeks to 12 months in one case, and 17 months in another.”

“My research uses immunotherapies, to ‘wake up’ the immune system so it recognises the foreign cancer, and starts to destroy it.

Dr Allavena said the team was also trialling a vaccine made by extracting proteins from the dog’s own cancer, customising it for each canine patient.

“In dogs which respond to the vaccine, the cancer melts away or stops growing, and Gus fortunately has benefited,” she said.

“In both cases we know the treatments are safe for the pet dog, who gets to remain with their family throughout the treatment.”

Gus’s owner, Angela de Villiers, said she was heart-broken when she learned he had an aggressive cancer known as a mast cell tumour on his leg.

“His prognosis was not good and they told us they could not remove all of the cancer with margins due to its location,” she said.

“We love our dogs so subjecting Gus to a nasty surgery and then radiation therapy was just not an option, and we decided to just try and make what time he had left awesome.

“Dr Annika Oksa Walker and the UQ team looked at his case and assured me that he would not have to undergo too many long sessions.

“Luckily, although mast cell is bad, it responds well to the treatment.

“Gus started his treatments in early September and his tumour has not grown.

“He has no pain and there are no signs of it anywhere else on his body.

Although there are no guarantees, we are very hopeful that Gus will be able to live a full life and enjoy his old age.”

Dr Allavena said canine cancers had similar appearance, behaviour, genetics and environmental causes to human cancers, so the study effectively advances both human and canine medicine.

“Cancer is common in our pet dogs, and certain breeds are very prone to specific cancers, creating a powerful research opportunity,” she said. 

“The new treatments have cured pets, and provided safety and efficacy data for ongoing human clinical trials.”

Dr Allavena’s research group studies several major common and devastating cancers in pet dogs - mast cell tumour, lymphoma, melanoma and carcinomas.​

The UQ VETS Small Animal Hospital at the University’s Gatton campus has internal medicine specialists who perform pet cancer treatments.

Dr Allavena said researchers appreciated community support to improve the health and welfare of pets such as Gus at the UQ VETS Small Animal Hospital. 

“Our research has advanced with the support of the John & Mary Kibble Trust, Canine Research Foundation and private donors,” she said

The study is being conducted by UQ, in conjunction with colleagues at Australian National University and the University of Sydney. 

People wishing to support UQ research to benefit companion animals can visit https://www.uq.edu.au/giving/donations/fund/School_of_Veterinary_Science.

Owners of dogs that may benefit from participating in the trial can contact Dr Annika Oksa Walker by email on a.oksawalker@uq.edu.au.

Media: Associate Professor Rachel Allavena, r.allavena@uq.edu.au, +61 7 5460 1826.

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