By GABE WAGGONER
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PUPS and PEOPLE
By Gabe Waggoner
Dog and child photo: gostua / Shutterstock.com; Building, courtesy of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences
When most people hear “veterinarian,” they think of medical care for household pets. But some vets are treating animal maladies and using that knowledge to advance research on disease in human beings.
Take veterinary medical oncologist Heather Wilson-Robles: Both pups and people benefit from her work. She is a professor and assistant department head of small-animal clinical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M. She focuses on cancerous tumors that occur in dogs and then translates that research to develop treatments for cancers that afflict human children and adults. Her work involves not only lab research to identify and target tumor cells but also clinical trials in dogs to help guide studies in human patients.
Wilson-Robles also serves as chief medical officer of Volition Veterinary Diagnostics Development, a Belgian company with offices in London, Singapore, and Texas. Volition has developed blood tests, known collectively as Nu.Q, that can detect cancer in humans and animals. Those tests for screening, triage, diagnosis, and monitoring seek out circulating cancer DNA complexes even in early disease stages, before the cancer can spread.
When a cancer cell dies, its nucleus breaks down into nucleosomes—chunks of chromatin, made of DNA and proteins called histones. Nu.Q tests hunt for those nucleosomes in the blood. The Nu.Q approach can target and respond to all 20 million nucleosome complexes released from that single dead cancer cell. By contrast, the techniques of circulating tumor DNA sequencing have to look for the one nucleosome from those millions that shows a mutation. Nu.Q tests are in clinical trials in people with colorectal, lung, and prostate cancer. Results so far indicate that Nu.Q testing detects and identifies cancers more accurately than standard tests.
Many conventional tests for canine cancer are lengthy, expensive, and painful. But Nu.Q tests are now available from the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science’s Gastrointestinal Laboratory to diagnose cancer in dogs with just one blood test. Volition offers some sobering statistics:
As a preventive measure, the blood test can be done as part of a dog’s annual physical. For dogs who might have cancer, that single-test method offers the hope of more reliable and earlier detection, leading to better treatments and better quality of life for pets and owners alike. In studies, Nu.Q tests were better than conventional tests at detecting lymphoma and hemangiosarcoma. Research also is forthcoming about using Nu.Q to detect osteosarcoma, histiocytic sarcoma, and mast cell tumors, and for seeing how well treatments work and how long remission lasts. Beyond the world of cancer, Wilson-Robles says, Nu.Q testing might also detect severe inflammation in dogs who aren’t sick.
"We are very excited about the results we have been able to garner thus far. This test has a lot of promise as a wellness screening test for dogs over the age of seven or those at increased risk of cancer,” Wilson-Robles says. “We hope to release a monitoring test later this year that will also help veterinarians determine how useful chemotherapy is in their lymphoma patients during treatment.”
She and her team hope to present research findings about treatment monitoring at June’s meeting of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. Nu.Q tests may be coming to our feline friends, too, with more information on that possibly coming later this year.
Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles
Professor and Dr. Fred A. and Vola N. Palmer Chair in Comparative Oncology College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences
Heather Robles is a well-established veterinary medical oncologist specializing in canine models of human cancer. Her research over the past nine years has focused on improving canine models of pediatric and adult cancers and translating these findings to the mutual benefit of both species. Her basic research focuses on the identification and targeting of tumor initiating cells in osteosarcoma, melanoma, and mammary/breast cancers in both canines and humans.
Heather Wilson-Robles photo courtesy of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences