New Research Has Good News For Dogs With Skin Cancer

New Research Has Good News For Dogs With Skin Cancer

Just like humans, as dogs get older they are more prone to developing different forms of cancer. In fact, some research points to the idea that dogs are actually more likely to develop some form of the illness than humans. According to veterinary oncologist Dave Ruslander, that number is as high as 50% of dogs over the age of 10— an astonishing number when you consider that number doesn’t discriminate against breeds or genetic dispositions like many other common dog illnesses. But those numbers can be disputed by some researcher who would suggest the average is closer to about one in every four dogs being affected by cancer. No matter the final verdict, the result still points to cancer being a prominent and potentially life-threatening illness amongst dogs. 

Tumors, recurring lesions and wounds that won’t heal, lameness, abnormal discharges, and fluctuations in weight and size are all common for canines as they age. While not all of these things are an indication of a type of cancer, they certainly can be signs of various forms of it at times. And dogs and dog owners impacted by at least one common form of cancer just received some promising news following the results of recent research. Led by Dr. Mike Starkey, researchers at the Animal Health Trust worked in collaboration with the University of Liverpool to successfully identify genetic changes in skin cancer which are linked to the spreading of tumors. approximately 25 percent of the tumors metastasize, which means to spread to other parts of the body. 

“When melanomas are of the feet and lips, the disease often evolves differently than when it occurs on the skin or in the mouth,” says Gerald Post, DVM. “Tumors in fur/hair-covered-skin areas are generally benign (although there are exceptions). Tumors on the nail bed and mouth are most often malignant, with the vast majority of oral melanomas being malignant. Oral tumors also often recur more quickly than other types of melanoma after the first round of treatment.”  

The most common and often most aggressive form of skin cancer in dogs develop with cutaneous mast cell tumors, which regularly recur and spread to lymph nodes, the liver, spleen, and can result in death within a year. According to existing research. One of the greatest challenges in treating dogs affected by this type of cancer is that vets don’t currently have reliable ways to accurately predict if and how a tumor will spread. Chemotherapy is a common treatment for this, used to slow the development and spreading of mast cell tumors, but it can’t definitively stop the spreading of tumors and many dogs die prematurely with these tumors. This new research, however, could help vets identify the best ways to treat such dogs earlier while also giving researchers hope that they may be able to develop entirely new and promising treatments because of it. If effective, these tests can inform some vets if and when chemotherapy is actually appropriate, while chemotherapy can now be avoided in other cases.  

Their research observed data from 13 years’ worth of biopsies of canine primary cutaneous MCTs for dogs treated by the Clinical Oncology departments at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Small Animal Studies and the University of Liverpool Small Animal Teaching Hospital. It tracked the patient death or a minimum of 1,000 days following initial — whichever came first —  identifying the occurrences of metastasis. In all, 78 dogs were eligible for inclusion in the study once controls were accounted for. 

“Mast cell tumours are one of the most common tumours affecting dogs. There is currently no accurate way of predicting whether a tumour is one of the 20–30% of MCTs that will metastasise, and pre-existing micrometastases may not be detected by current imaging modalities,” the published findings read. “In the absence of an effective predictive test for MCT metastasis, dogs that bear tumours with unrecognised metastatic potential may not receive adjuvant chemotherapy, whilst dogs erroneously believed to harbour a metastasising tumour may be unnecessarily exposed to the possible side-effects of chemotherapy.” 

“If the performance of the metastasis gene expression signature-associated LDA classifier is validated on an independent MCT cohort it would represent the only test for canine cutaneous MCT metastasis and, as a single assay, an improvement on currently available prognostic indicators for canine cutaneous MCTs,” they concluded. 

“The findings of the research study is the result of many years work and are important because so many dogs are affected by cutaneous mast cell tumors,” says Dr. Starkey, of the Animal Health Trust. “Cancer affects one in four dogs and research is the only way to fight cancer. I’m hugely grateful to everyone who has supported my team and this research to-date, and I believe this is a really exciting time as we can begin to see how our work can improve the outcome for dogs with cancer. The Animal Health Trust is the only charity with a dedicated canine cancer research group in the UK and not many local people know we are based right here in Suffolk. Anything we learn about cancer in dogs may help understanding of the corresponding cancer in humans.”

While Starkey wasn’t quick to call the research findings a “breakthrough,” Dr. Starkey did say their research is an important piece in the “mast cell tumour jigsaw,” saying that “Cancer research is like completing a 10,000-piece jigsaw. It is the first study that has been really able to look at the genetic changes that promote the metastasis of cutaneous mast cell tumours, one of the most common tumours in dogs.” 

“Discovering that your dog has been diagnosed with cancer is an extremely emotional time in any dog owner’s life, and our support for cancer research at the Animal Health Trust is vital in helping to make that journey a bit easier for dog owners in the future,” added Steve Dean, chairman of the Kennel Club Charitable Trust. 

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