MADISON, WI (Spectrum News 1) — A clinical trail is testing a treatment that could act as a vaccine against cancer.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine is one of three schools involved in the trial. The treatment will be tested on dogs, last week UW-Madison researchers started administering the treatment.
David Vail, an oncologist at UW-Madison's School of Veterinary Medicine who is in charge of administering the vaccine in Wisconsin, said dogs are perfect to test this on.
“They unfortunately have a shorter life span, develop cancers quicker and their cancers progress faster,” Vail said.
If the treatment works in dogs, it may work in humans too.
One of the first dogs to receive the treatment was Norton, a 10-year-old rat-terrier mix.
“He has no idea obviously, but I don't know it kind of just gives you that pride that you helped either way,” said Abbey Ace, a veterinary technician at UW-Madison and Norton's owner.
The vaccine looks at preventing cancer from developing rather than treating it after it's present. Vail said it warns the immune system about an abnormal protein known to be present in tumors. Ideally the immune system remembers the protein and can attack it before it would develop into a cancerous tumor.
“Essentially putting up wanted posters in the immune system to tell them this is what you want to be looking for in the future,” Vail said. “Essentially putting up wanted posters in the immune system to tell them this is what you want to be looking for in the future.”
Vail said it's a new approach to fighting cancer. Because of that there are plenty of reasons to believe it could work, and plenty to think it won't.
“It may fail but it's such a novel idea and it's so much better to prevent cancer before it starts that it would be a great boon obviously,” Vail said.
The Open Philanthropy Group is funding the $7 million project. 800 dogs around the country will be tested at UW-Madison, University of California-Davis and Colorado State. An Arizona State University researcher named Stephen Johnston developed the vaccine.
Half of the dogs will receive a placebo and nobody knows which dog is getting the real treatment.
“We won't know as the veterinarian, and the client won't know and of course it's actually triple blinded because the dog won't know,” Vail said.
The study is scheduled to run for five years. Two years in researchers will check in and take a look at results, if they are significant in showing the vaccine works they will start developing it for humans.
Vail said cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs. It's one of the leading causes of death in humans too according to the National Cancer Institute. So if the treatment works it could make a large impact.
“If I can help in some way to prevent that in the future that's great, and if it translates into preventing cancer in people, we're all touched by cancer,” Vail said.
Ace calls herself a hypochondriac when it comes to Norton.
“He gets a bump and I assume he's dying,” Ace said. “He's my baby so I just think the worst.”
Luckily for Ace and Norton — and all the dogs in the trial — even if they have the placebo the funding covers treatments for the animals should they develop cancer.
The two-year check in point will also look for side-effects. Dogs will have regular check-ups over the course of the trial. Each dog gets a series of 4 vaccines spread out in two week intervals, then a six month booster. After that each year they will get another booster as long as the trial is running.