Texas A&M, MD Anderson Clinical Trial Helps Dogs, People
Posted December 12, 2017
Kristin Patrick drops off Sadie for her appointment at the Small
Look at Sadie Watson and you may not guess she has much in common
with anyone at MD Anderson. After all, Sadie is a 9-year-old French
bulldog and beloved family pet. But she’s also facing the same
diagnosis as many patients in MD Anderson’s Brain and Spine Center:
a brain tumor called a glioma.
Sadie’s owner Kristin Patrick and her husband, Robert Watson,
also have two young sons, but Sadie was their “first baby.”
“When you love a pet so much, they become part of your family,”
But in July 2016, while Patrick and Watson were on vacation in
Paris, Sadie had multiple seizures and eventually was diagnosed
with the glioma.
When it came time for Patrick and Watson to decide
how to treat their beloved pet, their perspective as both parents
and researchers in the Texas A&M’s Department of Microbial
Pathogenesis and Immunology shaped their treatment decision—Sadie
would undergo brain surgery to remove the tumor, donate the tissue
for analysis, and enroll in an innovative clinical trial being
conducted at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine &
Biomedical Sciences (CVM).
“Participating in science is essential to move these therapies
forward for families,” Patrick said. “If our actual baby had a
brain tumor—I can’t even fathom that.”
The clinical trial, it turns out, will have implications not
only on Sadie; the same brain tumors that affect dogs are found in
Using data from this clinical trial, physician-scientists from
MD Anderson and the CVM are teaming up to help man and man’s best
A Common Bond
“We have the same struggles in that these gliomas in dogs are
really hard to treat,” said Dr. Jonathan Levine, professor, Helen
McWhorter Chair and department head of Small Animal Clinical
Sciences at the CVM, where Sadie is a patient.
Current therapies simply aren’t very effective at treating
high-grade gliomas, such as grade IV glioblastoma, and survival is
poor in both humans and dogs. Scientists know that tumors from both
species look almost identical on MRI scans and under the
microscope. In 2015, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) created a
comparative brain tumor consortium to evaluate canine brain cancer
as a model for human disease.
“The big question is: Are human and canine high-grade gliomas
genetically the same?” said Dr. Amy Heimberger, professor of
neurosurgery at MD Anderson and co-leader of the Glioblastoma Moon
To find the answer, she’s leading a P30 grant funded
by the NCI. Fittingly, Heimberger is also a dog-lover, with a
pet collie named Duke, a west highland terrier named Winston, and a
long-haired dachshund named Millie.
Levine and brain tumor genomics expert Roeland Verhaak, Ph.D.,
professor and associate director of Computational Biology at The
Jackson Laboratory in Connecticut, are co-investigators on the
grant. (Levine has a border terrier named Lucy. Verhaak has a
Chihuahua named Lola.)
The P30 grant is the first large-scale, advanced-sequencing
project to characterize genetic alterations in canine glioma and
the first screening project to identify immune responses in these
tumors. Verhaak is currently analyzing data from whole-genome and
RNA sequencing of 90 tissue samples from dogs with brain tumors.
The grant’s long-term goal is to develop a safe and effective
immunotherapy for both dogs and people with high-grade gliomas.
“These dogs, not only do they stand to benefit, but they
represent an amazing opportunity to understand the biology of brain
tumors, to understand how tumors evade drugs, and to understand the
immune response,” Levine said.
A Better Model & A Shared Hope
All new cancer drugs are tested for safety and effectiveness in
the lab—often in engineered mouse models—before they are approved
for clinical trials in humans or dogs.
“Pre-clinical studies can look fantastic in mice, but fall apart
in humans,” Heimberger said.
For a cancer like glioblastoma, which less than 10 percent of
patients survive for five years, this is exceedingly
“I want to reduce the cost and futility of clinical trials,” she
said. “When you have a patient facing something this dire, you want
to offer them something with a good chance of success.”
The current model system is imperfect: mice do not grow brain
tumors on their own. Their tumors are small, sometimes microscopic.
They live in a sterile environment. And their immune response is
biased, making it difficult to accurately assess
Pet dogs, on the other hand, spontaneously develop large brain
tumors. They have a natural immune response to cancer, and they
live in the homes of their human families.
As the grant team analyzes the tumor tissue samples from Sadie
and other dogs, they will look for genetic mutations and immune
responses known to occur in human brain tumors. If the results show
that canine brain tumors are indeed a good model for human brain
tumors, then clinical trials in man’s best friend could reveal
which new immunotherapies have the best chance of success in
“Cancer is horrible for anyone affected by it, whether that’s a
dog or a person,” Levine said. “There’s a huge opportunity here to
develop something that helps dogs and also helps people.”
This story, by Meagan Raeke, first appeared in MD Anderson’s
Conquest magazine. The original article can be viewed here.
For more information about the Texas A&M College of
Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our
website at vetmed.tamu.edu
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Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of
Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College
of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; firstname.lastname@example.org
; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)
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