By Diana Bocco
Veterinary science has come a long way in the past decade. Pets are living longer, healthier and happier lives thanks to scientific developments such as transplants, new cancer treatments and even stem cell therapy.
Here are some of the incredible things our pets now have access to thanks to advancements in veterinary science.
New Canine Cancer Vaccine
Most common pet diseases already have an associated vaccine that can reduce or eliminate the risk of getting sick. So scientists are now exploring more advanced options to prevent and treat serious illnesses like cancer.
The Oncept canine melanoma vaccine is a unique therapeutic vaccine that seeks to treat canine cancer. It has revolutionized the world of veterinary science.
“The Oncept melanoma vaccine is Merial’s attempt to trigger the dogs’ own immune system to fight off cancer and heal itself,” says Dr. Carol Osborne, DVM, from Chagrin Falls Veterinary Center & Pet Clinic. Dr. Osborne is leading a US trial that maps the immune cycle of dogs to choose optimal cancer-treatment times. “This is opposed to chemotherapy, which has been the historical practice of trying to treat cancer with strong toxic drugs but in most cases not curing or eliminating the disease.”
The canine melanoma vaccine is made of DNA that is encoded with a human protein called tyrosinase (tyrosinase is found in cells called melanocytes that produce a pigment called melanin), Dr. Osborne explains.
“Human tyrosinase is very similar to canine tyrosinase,” says Dr. Osborne. “Melanoma cancer cells are loaded with tyrosinase, and the theory is that the two proteins cross-react and trigger the dog’s body to eliminate cancer.”
The canine melanoma vaccine is being used extensively by cancer specialists in dogs with stages 2 and 3 of malignant melanoma to try to help prevent it from spreading into the dog’s lymph nodes and lungs, explains Dr. Osborne.
“Since 2007, results indicate that dogs who receive surgery and the vaccine survive approximately 12 months longer than those who receive surgery but do not receive the vaccine,” Dr. Osborne adds.
Immunotherapy for Cancer in Pets
Immunotherapy has become the golden treatment for cancer in pets, thanks to new studies like those conducted by Mason Immunotherapy research studies at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
Dog and cat immunotherapy involves getting modified bacteria to target a tumor-specific protein, explains Dr. Osborne. This forces the immune system to fight the cancer cells and heal on its own.
Gene Therapy Treatments
Scientists are also looking into recombinant DNA (rDNA) to help treat cancer in dogs.
“Recombinant DNA has opened the door for gene therapy,” says Dr. Osborne. “Despite ethical concerns, gene therapy would theoretically treat a wide range of diseases by allowing veterinarians to replace abnormal and/or missing genes in the animal.”
Preliminary studies include a new therapy for canine mammary cancer using a recombinant measles virus, and a 2018 study that concludes that “oncolytic viruses are gaining ground as an alternative approach for treating cancer in dogs and humans.”
While these treatment options are still in the early stages of development, they offer a world of possibilities for the treatment of cancer in dogs.
Transplants and Replacements for Pets
Eye lens transplants have become rather commonplace to treat cataracts in dogs, according to Dr. Bruce Silverman, VMD, MBA, owner of Village West Veterinary. Dr. Silverman also adds that pacemakers are also becoming more common in dogs.
“Organ transplants, on the other hand, are still quite rare and are generally done in university settings,” says Dr. Silverman.
The most common organ transplants at this time are kidney transplants for cats. According to the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia—one of the few centers in the country that does cat kidney transplants—the typical patient is a cat with chronic kidney disease, as dogs’ metabolisms are different and more likely to reject the new kidney.
The transplant program, which is limited and costly (a kidney transplant can set you back $15,000), requires that all donor cats are adopted by the recipient’s family.
Bone marrow transplants are also available for dogs with lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma or generalized mast cell cancer, according to Dr. Osborne. “North Carolina State Veterinary Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Bellingham Veterinary in Bellingham, Washington, offer the procedure,” says Dr. Osborne.
The good news is that dogs weighing over 35 pounds without any major organ dysfunction have enjoyed a 50 percent cure rate for a disease that previously was uniformly fatal, says Dr. Osborne.
“The procedure is quite involved and requires several steps,” says Dr. Osborne. “First dogs undergo chemotherapy, which is used to achieve remission of cancer, then the dogs’ own blood cells are harvested, after which these canines undergo two sessions of full-body radiation.”
Finally, the harvested blood cells are then transplanted back into the dog before he’s prepared for recovery, which requires two weeks in complete isolation, according to Dr. Osborne.
Stem Cell Therapy for Pets
Stem cell therapy is used most often for degenerative disorders in dogs and cats.
Although results are somewhat disappointing at this time because it’s such a new development, Dr. Osborne says stem cell therapy for dogs and cats is very effective to treat osteoarthritis of the hips, elbows, stifles and shoulders, primarily in dogs.
Scientists are now working hard to extend the healing benefits of stem cell therapy for dogs and cats.
“At the moment, improvements in joint function, range of motion and quality of life have validated lasting effects for an average of 6 months post-procedure,” Dr. Osborne says.