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How a Proven Therapy for Fighting Human Cancers is Helping Dogs With Cancer

Over the past decade immunotherapy, where the power of the immune system is harnessed to target and destroy cancer, has become an effective and increasingly common treatment approach for some types of human cancers.  Now, this method is becoming more available for fighting cancers in pets. The final webinar in the ACCC Summer Series, “How to Navigate Through the Cancer Diagnosis,” featured Laura Greene, DVM, DACVIM Senior Professional Services Veterinarian, for Merck Animal Health. Her presentation to primary care veterinarians, “Immune Checkpoint Inhibition: The Rising Star in Oncology Therapeutics,” may be viewed in its entirety here

A summary of highlights that may be of interest to pet owners seeking information about cancer are outlined below:

Dr. Greene explained that one in four dogs will develop cancer and that nearly 50% of dogs over the age of 10 actively have a cancer diagnosis. Pet owners have so many questions upon hearing that their pet has cancer, but one of the first is usually, “What are the options?”. Traditionally, three pillars of cancer therapy are often used together or individually – chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. A fourth pillar, immunotherapy, is rising as another way to attack cancer in a targeted approach.

At the core of this therapy is the ability to teach the body’s own immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells and to enhance this response. The category of immunotherapy, which can also be used in tandem with the traditional modalities, includes such therapies as monoclonal antibodies which act as flags for the immune system; cancer vaccines, CAR-T cell therapy (a process where T-cells are trained outside the body and then reintroduced to fight the cancer), and immune checkpoint inhibitors.

Studies investigating the use of these new immunotherapies are showing great promise, according to Dr. Greene, and, as a result, are enabling the introduction of new options in the treatment of cancer in pets.

“There are many different immunotherapeutic modalities, but one of the most exciting is that of immune checkpoint inhibitors,” she said. “These monoclonal antibodies help fight cancer by preventing the cancer from turning off the immune system, and the first USDA conditionally licensed checkpoint inhibitor in veterinary medicine is anticipated to be available to veterinary oncologists in the near future.”

Dr. Greene notes that we still have a great deal to learn about the best way to integrate all of the rising immunotherapeutic approaches with our traditional pillars of cancer therapy, but the horizon is bright with the possibility of all the new options veterinarians will have for treating cancer.