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Canine genetics are not all that different from our own.
Canine genetics are not all that different from our own. / GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images

There’s a new twist on dogs being man’s best friend. Veterinary medicine is providing helpful research for people in surprising ways:

Gliomas.

Gliomas are aggressive brain tumors that occur in dogs as well as in people. Peter Dickinson, a veterinary specialist and professor of neurology and neurosurgery at University of California-Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, says that for people, the treatment has been surgery and, when possible, radiation and drugs. But only two drugs to help fight the disease have been developed in the past 30 years, and neither is effective long-term.

Those drugs were developed using rodent models. “Rodents are inexpensive, and we get initial results fast,” Dickinson says. “But if we really want to see a realistically closer response to what will happen in people, using dogs just makes sense — to benefit people and dogs.”

Injecting chemotherapy directly into brain tumors in dogs shrinks some tumors up to 90%. As a result, a clinical trial is about to begin with people who have brain cancer.

Also, genetic clues are being studied.

“If we can learn what switches on the gliomas in dogs (within a gene), we may find a similar or even identical answer in people,” Dickinson says. And this is true for any illness with a genetic component, because the canine genome map isn’t all that different from our own.

Breast cancer.

Dogs and people share many cancers. Karin Sorenmo, a veterinary oncology specialist and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, has been treating homeless dogs with mammary tumors through the PennVet Shelter Mammary Tumor program. This saves the lives of dogs that might otherwise be euthanized while aiding research for people and dogs.

Dogs typically have several concurrent mammary tumors at various stages of development, and these provide a snapshot of the pathological continuum, from benign to malignant tumors — all in one patient. “Understanding the molecular changes at various stages of development (in dogs) — which we don’t see in people — may help us develop new drugs,” Sorenmo says.

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Contributing editor Steve Dale is a certified dog and cat behavior consultant. He writes a twice-weekly syndicated newspaper column and is the host of two syndicated radio shows. Most recently he is the author of two e-books that answer common (and some not-so-common) pet-behavior problems, Good Dog! and Good Cat! (available wherever e-books are sold).