Animals and humans have a lot in common. Not only do they share the same living environments, but they also share many similar segments of genes. This makes animals great disease models in research.
Dr. Alycen Lundberg, a veterinary oncologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, studies cancer in feline patients to improve the lives of feline and human patients everywhere.
Cancer in cats
“As a whole in veterinary research, feline cancer is underrepresented,” Dr. Lundberg says, explaining there is less information available about cancer in cats compared to dogs, which offers a great opportunity for researchers.
“Cat owners are incredibly dedicated people and will go to great lengths for their animals,” Dr. Lundberg says.
There are many clinical trials available through the UI’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital in which pet parents have enrolled their animals. These trials provide much-needed data about these often hard-to-treat diseases and can meaningfully extend the quality of life of these pets.
“Cats, dogs and other species share a large percentage of the human genome,” Dr. Lundberg says. “Cancer in our animal patients is very similar to that in humans.”
Cancer development is a complicated, multi-factorial process. Cats can be a good model for many cancers that humans develop because not only do cats and people share genetic similarities, but they also live, eat and breathe in the same environment. Therefore, they are exposed to many of the same factors that may contribute to some types of cancer development.
More cancer in pets?
“I often get asked why we are seeing more cancer in our pets,” Dr. Lundberg says. “It’s not necessarily that there is an increase in cancer cases; it is that we are getting better at diagnosing cancer and, thanks to improved preventive health care for pets, they are living longer. Therefore, they are living long enough to undergo genetic changes that can lead to cancer.”
There aren’t currently any proven ways to prevent all cancers, other than avoiding known risk factors for certain types, she said.
“We know a lot about cancer now, but there is still so much that is unknown,” Dr. Lundberg explains. “The best thing we can do for pets is regular checkups with their family veterinarian.
“Keeping animals up to date on vaccinations and regular bloodwork can help identify any issues sooner. For some cancers, an earlier diagnosis will lead to better outcome and response to treatments.”
In human medicine, researchers have identified many genetic mutations and biomarkers that can determine a person’s risk for a certain type of cancer. An example of this is the mutated BRCA gene that can increase a person’s chances of developing breast cancer.
While specific tests for biomarkers or genetic mutations aren’t as common, or as readily available, in veterinary medicine, there are prognostic panels, or groups of tests, and ways to look for specific proteins or mutated genes.
“The panels are not as simple as they seem and must be taken into context with many other factors of the individual patient,” Dr. Lundberg explains.
In order to diagnose cancer, the veterinarian will use a combination of tools. The first is a thorough physical examination. If the examination reveals a mass of concern or enlarged lymph node, the veterinarian may decide to sample cells from it to better understand its makeup.
Helping all species
“Diagnosis and treatment options in veterinary oncology have come a long way. We can do so much for pets in regard of their quality of life. A cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence,” Dr. Lundberg explains.
The cancer team at the UI Veterinary Teaching Hospital prioritizes patient well-being and the wishes of the owners in delivering treatment and support for pets with cancer.
“We are not only here for the patient, but for the human family that is dealing with this cancer diagnosis,” Dr. Lundberg says.
Oncologists at the hospital are also at the forefront of cancer research, which leads to better treatments for pets and in some cases, people, too.