Does the dog-human bond extend to cancer genes? New research could help both species

They say people begin to look like their dogs over time, but what about their cancers? 

New findings have revealed previously undetected genetic similarities between dog and human cancers, a discovery that could be used to accelerate cancer R&D for both species. Researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the University of Georgia and One Health Company set out to better understand the similarities between naturally occurring canine and human cancers and published their findings in Scientific Reports on July 6.

The scientists compared more than 42,000 genetic mutations found in 23 common tumor types from 671 dogs across 96 breeds. The study, conducted in 2020, was the largest original canine tumor sequencing study ever at the time, according to One Health, which touts a DNA sequencing platform designed to help vets choose targeted cancer treatments based on genetic mutations found in canine tumor tissue.

The researchers found mutations in 50 oncogenes and tumor suppressors and compared them to human cancers. Just like in human cancer, they found TP53 was the most commonly mutated gene, detected in nearly 25% of all canine tumors.

The research team also discovered that canine tumors share eight mutational hot spots with human tumors in oncogenes including PIK3CA, KRAS, NRAS, BRAF, KIT and EGFR. The genetic similarities mean most of the hot spots in dogs can be treated by small-molecule drugs approved for people and that canine cancer data can be used to speed up development of new cancer drugs for people.

“This provides a much-needed resource for comparative oncology,” Shaying Zhao, paper co-author, University of Georgia professor and a researcher in comparative oncology, said in a July 6 release.

Before this study, most research in the field consisted of small trials that lacked genomic data between canine and human cancers. Previously, data from dogs with cancer have been used to advance development of more than 10 cancer drugs at a lower cost, but the dearth of genetic data on canine cancer limited effectiveness.

Given the genetic similarities discovered between the two, the researchers now believe canine models could be used to offset challenges faced in human trials like high rates of drug failure, low participation rates, small patient cohorts and high cost.    

“The results of this study show the incredible potential of combining canine cancer genomics and big data analysis to save lives on both ends of the leash,” said co-author and One Health Company CEO Christina Lopes.