It might seem strange that Rein in Sarcoma supports dog cancer research but there’s a good reason.
Canine hemangiosarcoma, a type of dog cancer, has been known among veterinarians as one of the most vexing diseases to treat.1 It is highly aggressive, fatal, and may not make itself apparent until a seemingly healthy dog collapses. Once a cancerous tumor is found, it’s not uncommon for a dog to die within 6 to 8 weeks.2
About 50,000 dogs each year are diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma according to a 2017 Public Library of Science research article.3 The cause is unknown, but it’s seen in pet dogs all over the United States and worldwide. Hemangiosarcoma may occur in any breed at any time, but it’s mainly diagnosed in older dogs, usually between 9-12 years old.4
So why did Rein in Sarcoma award a grant in support of canine hemangiosarcoma research this year? Because it turns out that dogs benefit from what researchers have learned about treating a similar cancer in humans known as angiosarcoma. And when researchers capture data on how dogs respond to hemangiosarcoma treatment, that data is then applied back to how angiosarcoma may be treated in people.
We talked with Rein in Sarcoma grant recipient Erin Dickerson, Ph.D. She’s an associate professor of oncology and comparative medicine in the Veterinary Clinical Sciences department at the University of Minnesota.
RIS: How much of an overlap is there between canine hemangiosarcoma and human angiosarcoma?
Dickerson: They are virtually identical in their appearance and progression. New technology has helped us identify some differences, but there are a lot of similarities.
RIS: So, you’re doing comparative research. You’re studying what happens to pet dogs who have been diagnosed with cancer by a veterinarian, and it’s the owners, and vets who are taking the initiative to treat the dog. What can you learn from these dogs?
Dickerson: We can learn a lot from dogs as a model for sarcomas because they have a compressed lifespan. We are able to treat a dog and determine the outcome in months or a couple of years. In contrast, a study on human patients could take years or decades.
Since so many dogs do get sarcoma, there’s a large enough pool to do valid studies. In contrast, the number of people who get sarcoma is much smaller — it’s a challenge to find enough patients with sarcoma who meet the criteria for a clinical trial. So, what we do is use the data we get from studying the dogs and apply that to our questions and results regarding human sarcoma.
RIS: How do you and the dog owners connect?
Dickerson: We do a lot of outreach and often participate in local events. We go to the Rein in Sarcoma picnic each year. Even there, many do not know that dogs can get cancer, or specifically sarcomas, or that dogs are being studied to help with treatments for humans with cancer. We also go to the State Fair and participate in programs at the Science Museum – they host a Goldy vs. cancer event each year.
A lot of dog owners aren’t aware that dogs can get cancer. Many owners are shocked to discover cancer in their pet dog. An owner can bring their dog to the clinic at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) for care. We often run clinical trials to determine if a new treatment might work better for hemangiosarcoma or other sarcomas. Depending on the trial, a lot of expenses may be covered. The trials that we run are very similar to those for people where certain standards and guidelines need to be followed.
We call hemangiosarcoma the ‘silent killer’ since many dogs don’t show any signs of this cancer until it has progressed. At this point, it can often be too late. So, we’re trying to get the word out to dog owners about what to look for so they can work with their veterinarian to can catch the disease early.
RIS: What sparked your interest in dogs and cancer?
Dickerson: I got started while studying breast cancer in a lab when I was in college. Later, I went to graduate school and started studying something totally different. After I got my Ph.D. I wanted to get back into cancer research.
As a researcher, I found out about the prevalence of hemangiosarcoma in dogs, and that it’s been a problem in veterinary medicine for a long time. In line with human angiosarcoma, there weren’t any good treatments. I’m a dog lover so I felt like this was a space where I wanted to make a difference. Hemangiosarcoma is a complex disease. We may not find a cure in my lifetime, but I hope to make a difference and improve the lives of dogs with this disease. I also hope that we can help people diagnosed with angiosarcoma.
RIS: How did you get acquainted with Rein in Sarcoma?
Dickerson: One of my collaborators at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Jaime Modiano, told me about Rein in Sarcoma when I first arrived at the university in 2009.
Dr. Modiano has also been the recipient of Rein in Sarcoma grants. It’s amazing how far our research has come — more has been learned about hemangiosarcoma in the last decade than in the previous 30-50 years.
Researchers are building a perpetual cycle of learning from dogs to help humans, then learning from humans to help dogs and back again. Little by little, we’re helping both dogs and people.
RIS: How can RIS readers support the research?
Dickerson: The best way to help is by getting the word out. Let people know that dogs can get sarcomas, and there are treatments that can help. Building awareness of the comparative medicine approaches is also something that will help both dogs and people.
If there are veterinarians and pet owners looking for more information, they may appreciate a podcast we did with Morris Animal Foundation. It can be found on the foundation website under the January 2023 “Fresh Scoop” Episode 52: New Ideas on Hemangiosarcoma in Dogs.
1Ritt M, Breen T, Canine Hemangiosarcoma – The Road from Despair to Hope. akcchf.org. Published August 16, 2007. Accessed April 29, 2023. https://www.akcchf.org/canine-health/your-dogs-health/canine-hemangiosarcoma.html
2The National Canine Cancer Foundation. Hemangiosarcoma (HSA) Or Angiosarcoma In Dogs. wearethecure.org. No publish date. Accessed April 29, 2023. https://wearethecure.org/learn-more-about-canine-cancer/canine-cancer-library/hemangiosarcoma/
3Wang G, Wu M, Maloneyhuss MA, Wojcik J, Durham AC, Mason NJ, et al. (2017) Actionable mutations in canine hemangiosarcoma. PLoS ONE 12(11): e0188667. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0188667
4Morris Animal Foundation. Understanding Hemangiosarcoma. morrisanimalfoundation.org. Published June 22, 2016. Accessed April 29, 2023. https://www.morrisanimalfoundation.org/article/understanding-hemangiosarcoma#:~:text=Hemangiosarcoma%20is%20cancer%20of%20the,Labrador%20retrievers%20and%20German%20shepherds.