Dr. Jonathan Levitt (320x240)
Dr. Jonathan Levitt, associate professor of pathology & immunology at Baylor College of Medicine.

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine have been awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health that will increase our understanding about the interactions between cancer and the immune system in dogs with naturally occurring tumors. The grant funds a collaboration between Baylor College of Medicine, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Medical Center of New York and Technical University of Denmark.

The project is led by Dr. Jonathan Levitt, associate professor of pathology & immunology at Baylor. Researchers will study dogs that have been diagnosed with cancer at the collaborating veterinary hospitals and apply that knowledge to the understanding of human cancer.

Having appropriate animal models for the study of human cancer is an important stepping-stone toward developing effective cancer immunotherapies and combination therapies, Levitt said. Immunotherapies are a type of cancer treatment that utilizes the body's natural defenses to fight the cancer.

“The dog as model of human cancer offers a number of advantages for testing therapeutics,” said Levitt. “Dogs have a long lifespan, they are genetically diverse and we believe their immune systems may work similarly to that of people.”

The researchers will determine whether spontaneously arising canine organ-site tumors are sufficiently similar to those of humans to employ canine cancer as a model for trials of experimental combination therapies for human use.

“If it works out, this will be a win/win opportunity for both human and veterinary medicine. We can gain valuable insights into novel human cancer therapeutics while providing life-saving cancer treatment for pet dogs for whom successful cancer therapies may not exist,” said Levitt.  “We will sequence mutations in canine cancers from bladder, breast and skin and compare them to those already studied in human tumors. This will allow us to ascertain whether these mutations can trigger immune responses in the dogs similar to those in people.” 

Another major goal of this study is to characterize the immune cells that infiltrate canine tumors and compare them with those in the respective human cancers. Knowing the type of cells that infiltrate tumors is important because it may help predict the susceptibility of each tumor to specific therapies.

This study involves a large group of investigators, including Drs. John Rodgers, Alan Herron and William Decker in the Department of Pathology and Immunology, and Drs. David Wheeler and Linghua Wang in the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor. Outside of Baylor College of Medicine collaborators include Dr. Rowan Milner at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Philip Fox at the Animal Medical Center of New York, and Dr. Morten Nielsen at the Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen.