In cancer research, people and pets are side by side

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to visit the Iowa State University (ISU) College of Veterinary Medicine to give a seminar and meet with some of the faculty, staff and students there. I was not quite sure what to expect. I have visited many “human” medical centers but had never visited a world-class animal hospital before. It was fascinating.

The discussions of laboratory research into cancer were quite familiar. ISU has some fantastic researchers exploring the biology of cancer. The conversations I had with them about cancer biology and laboratory research were similar to those I have had at a variety of top-notch academic cancer centers. Walking through the pharmacy, I recognized the names of most of the drugs that are used to treat animals with cancer. Indeed, many of the regimens used by veterinary oncologists to treat their “patients” (yes, they call them their patients), are based on regimens used to treat human cancer patients. At Iowa State, the infusion area where patients get treated is right next to the clinic as it is at Holden.

As expected, there are also differences between human and animal cancer care. Some are obvious such as the design of the patient “restroom.” Others are more subtle, such as issues surrounding confidentiality. At Holden, we would never put a patient’s name and diagnosis on a board where it could be seen by others. This is no problem at ISU because there are no HIPAA regulations for pets (not to mention that dog and cat patients can’t read). Hallway chatter was also both familiar and different from what I usually hear. This was the first time I ever heard someone walking down a hall say “I just saw a llama with pemphigus.”

While there are similarities and differences in how we cared for our patients, I was most struck by how well aligned we are in our thinking about cancer research and our desire to move the results of that research to where it can help our patients. Toward the end of the day I met with Dr. Chad Johannes who leads the companion animal oncology program at ISU. We talked about how we could work together. Here are just a few of the many ideas we floated …

  • Lung cancer in both humans and dogs is more common in areas with high radon. Can we use this information to raise awareness about radon abatement?
  • Humans and companion animals share a common environment. Can this information be used to understand cancer clusters?
  • Are there similarities in cancer genetics for cancers that occur in both humans and companion animals that might impact on selection of therapy for individual patients?
  • How can we use information learned during clinical trials done on humans to help companion animals, or clinical trials done on companion animals to help humans?

Right then and there, we decided that University of Iowa Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center and Iowa State University should collaborate more broadly on cancer research. The result is that this month, we kick off the Side-by-side in cancer research collaboration. Through this new collaborative program, we will explore how cancer research in pets can be used to help people, and cancer research in people can be used to help pets, and collaborate on other cancer research projects that combine the talents and expertise of cancer researchers at both institutions.

UI and ISU may be competitors on the football field, but we work side by side, and in lock step, when it comes to cancer research.

If you would like to learn more about the side by side in cancer research program, please visit our website. To support the program, go to www.givetoiowa.org/sidebyside.