Fraser’s tail thwacked the wood floors of Colorado State University’s veterinary teaching hospital and his eyebrows, graying from seven years on duty as Stephanie Foster’s best furry friend, wiggled while a vet technician checked his vitals. The chocolate lab’s enthusiasm — likely attributed to imminent treats — was fitting, nonetheless, for being among the first dogs to participate in a canine clinical trial testing the effectiveness of a new cancer prevention vaccine.
The Vaccination Against Canine Cancer study, the largest canine clinical trial ever conducted, is being done on about 150 dogs at three sites across the country: CSU, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California-Davis. If successful, the research could lead to a new tool for cancer prevention in pets, but, also, to human clinical trials testing a vaccine to prevent cancer in its earlier stages.
“This is the first trial ever conducted with the intent of trying to prevent a bunch of different kinds of cancer simultaneously,” said Dr. Douglas Thamm, director of clinical research at the Flint Animal Cancer at CSU’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
As soon as Foster heard about the vaccine trial, she knew she wanted to be involved. The Highlands Ranch resident lost her father to cancer when she was 15. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer as an adult, Foster relied on her pup, Maple, to get her through the grueling treatments. About a year after Foster’s cancer diagnosis, Maple was diagnosed with lymphoma and died nine months later.
“Cancer affects everybody,” Foster said in June before taking Fraser in for his vaccine. “Whatever I can do to help this cause, I want to do it.”
Fraser is among about 70 dogs enrolled in the study through CSU, where pups who meet the screening criteria are randomly chosen to receive either the vaccine or a placebo version on a routine schedule.
The new vaccine, supported by a multiyear grant of $6.4 million from the Open Philanthropy Project, was proven effective in mice and safe for use in companion animals like dogs.
“The reason flu vaccines work is they train your immune system to respond quickly and effectively if they encounter the flu later,” Thamm said. “This vaccine shows the immune system some stuff that might be present on tumors that develop in the future, and if the immune system sees those things, they can rev up quickly and efficiently.”
One dog out of the approximately 150 enrolled in the trial has since been diagnosed with cancer, but Thamm said because the tumor was found only six weeks into the process, the dog was likely already developing the tumor when beginning the study. The dog had the tumor removed and is doing fine, Thamm said.
The five-year study is still in the early stages, but Thamm said there are three outcomes that would constitute success.
“The biggest success would be all the dogs who got the vaccine get less cancer, period, than the dogs that didn’t get it. Hallelujah!” Thamm said. “Or the dogs that get vaccine never get it. That would be the grand slam.”
Two other successes, Thamm said, would be if some kinds of cancers were found to be prevented or if cancer wasn’t prevented, altogether, but delayed.
“If the average dogs have two or three extra years of healthy life before they get cancer, I would argue that’s also incredibly valuable,” Thamm said. “That could transfer to maybe five or 10 years of a delay in people.”
The study is still looking for qualifying dogs to participate in the trial but there are guidelines involving the dog’s size, health and breed. More information and the criteria can be found at csuanimalcancercenter.org/vaccination-against-canine-cancer-study.
Kelsey Brunner, The Denver PostStephanie Foster walks her dog, Fraser, outside of the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital after his appointment in Fort Collins, Colorado on Friday, June 28, 2019.Foster, a CSU alum, didn’t mind making the nearly two-hour trip from her home to the Fort Collins vet hospital.
“We could be part of history,” Foster said, giving Fraser a loving pat on the head. “This is groundbreaking. The possibility of a vaccine to maybe prevent cancer in our dogs and maybe even us later in life is huge.”
Updated 11:40 a.m. Oct. 7, 2019 Due to incorrect information provided by a source, this story originally misreported the number of sites where the Vaccination Against Canine Cancer study is being conducted. There are three sites across the country. Arizona State University is involved in the vaccine’s development, but it is not a study site.