Canine cancer study aimed at improving survival for humans and dogs

16 April 2014

Toronto -

With a $165,000 Innovation Grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, a University of Saskatchewan research team will treat dogs with drug-resistant lymphoma to uncover the reasons for this resistance and to identify ways to reverse it. Although scientists have identified the various processes involved in anticancer drug resistance, it remains a major problem and effective treatment is lacking.

“The cancer we’re studying – lymphoma – is very similar to human non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It’s spontaneous and responds to drug therapy. The same therapies are used, and both the canine and human cancers develop similar drug resistance,” says study leader Dr Troy Harkness, a molecular geneticist and professor at the university. “Because dogs age faster than humans, their disease advances more quickly and we are able to observe results that much sooner.”

The dogs participating in the study have already been diagnosed with drug-resistant lymphoma. They will receive treatment on an outpatient basis and the results of their treatment will be analyzed as part of this study.

For over a decade, Dr Harkness’ research has focused primarily on cancers that no longer respond to treatment. Last year his research team began studying the effect of Metformin on dogs with drug-resistant lymphoma. Metformin is a drug that has long been used to treat type 2 diabetes. Metformin is thought to have anti-cancer properties, potentially by decreasing the risk of cancer and may also have an impact on existing cancers.

In this study, the researchers will combine Metformin with standard chemotherapy to test if this will re-sensitize the dogs to anticancer drugs. To unravel how the drug is affecting cancer, the researchers will identify molecular markers of drug resistance, test whether Metformin can return these markers to normal, and build a database of the genetic changes associated with the onset of canine lymphoma. The Saskatchewan researchers are the first in the world to look at how Metformin may work to reverse lymphoma drug resistance in dogs.

The canine patients are being cared for by a team of veterinarians (Drs Val MacDonald and Casey Gaunt at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine). The unique team of scientists also includes experts in medical endocrinology (Dr Terra Arnason) and bioinformatics (Dr Tony Kusalik). The multidisciplinary team is essential to understanding the genetic activity – which genes are turned on or off – and identifying potential targets for new drug treatments.

“Whatever we find in dogs, we predict will be similar in humans. If we find the right combination, we may be able to predict earlier when multiple drug resistance is happening, target these individuals and start with a new treatment that may ultimately be more effective,” Dr Harkness says.

The team should collect enough data within 2 years to have a good idea whether Metformin assists in reversing drug resistance. Then a similar study could be run with people to apply what the team has learned in dogs.

“Expanding our knowledge about cancer can come from unique places, and that’s one of the goals of our Innovation Grants program – supporting projects that approach cancer research from different perspectives,” says Dr Siân Bevan, Director, Research, Canadian Cancer Society. “Dr Harkness’ research could lead to a better understanding of how multi-drug resistance occurs and could lead to improved ways to detect this resistance at earlier stages, identify targets for new treatments and help these patients live longer.”

The Society’s Innovation Grants program supports innovation, creative problem solving and unconventional concepts, approaches or methodologies in cancer research. This year the Society has awarded 46 grants worth almost $9 million.

Below are a few of the other new Innovation Grants. A complete list is available on

Dr Kevin Petrecca, McGill University, Montreal, $170,500 – Dr Petrecca is studying the genetics involved in the spread of the most common adult brain cancer, glioblastoma. He has found that the gene DRR is an important driver of cancer spread. He is now developing a gene-silencing treatment to block DRR expression and testing its effectiveness in a preclinical mouse model.

Dr Petrecca’s grant has been named the Brooke’s Donkeys Innovation Grant of the Canadian Cancer Society in recognition of the outstanding efforts of Brooke’s Donkeys, one of the top Relay for Life fundraising teams in Canada for the last 3 years. Since 2011, they have raised $200,000.

Dr Wan Lam, BC Cancer Research Centre, Vancouver, $200,000 – Lung cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, and its treatment is associated with adverse effects. Dr Lam is studying the role of immune cells in lung cancer and a new type of immunotherapy that targets a tumour’s microenvironment. His team will collect samples from healthy individuals and compare those with samples from lung cancer patients to see differences in the types of immune cells and how they work. They will test whether a new treatment that can target specific organs, known as site‑specific immunomodulation (SSI), triggers an anti‑tumour immune response in lung cancers. This could lead to new therapies for lung cancer.

Dr Sabine Mai, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, $198,210 – When normal cells become cancer cells, their DNA architecture – the way genetic material is organized in cells – changes. Dr Mai is using super-resolution microscopy to compare normal cells to cancerous ones and identify the architectural changes that take place. This work will help build a better understanding of how cancer develops and identify new structural biomarkers to define cancer cells and stages.

Dr Shana Kelley, University of Toronto, $200,000 – Cancers are more easily treated when they are diagnosed early, but some cancers – such as those in the brain – are hard to detect at an early stage. Dr Kelley is developing a novel way to diagnose cancers early through a simple blood test. Taking advantage of new knowledge that tumours release microparticles, she is developing a device to collect these particles and analyze the information they carry about the tumour. This device could be used to identify early signs that a tumour is present in the body and pinpoint aggressive cancers needing immediate treatment.

Through our generous donors and gold-standard peer-review process, the Canadian Cancer Society funds the best cancer research in Canada. Our funded researchers work in universities, hospitals and research centres across the country and are mapping new ways to change cancer forever. For more information, visit or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1-888-939-3333 (TTY 1-866-786-3934).

For more information, please contact:

Christine Harminc

Senior Manager, Communications & Media Relations

Canadian Cancer Society

Phone: 416 934-5340