Updated: Aug 8
When I first learned about a new cancer vaccine that might reduce the risk for many aggressive canine cancers, I wanted to sign up our dogs right away. This was back in 2019 and the research presentation was given at the ACVIM (American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine) Forum that took place in Phoenix, Arizona. It sounded too good to be true - almost like a universal cancer vaccine.
A vaccine can stimulate and train the immune system to recognize and protect against not just infectious diseases but cancer as well.
Is it possible to altogether prevent cancer before it even starts by giving our pup a safe and effective cancer vaccine?
Can we prevent cancer, instead of waiting for it to start and treating it?
Cancer Prevention Vaccines for People
There are two vaccines that are widely used in human medicine to prevent cancer.
But they reduce the risks of only specific cancers caused by viral infections.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine is designed to protect against certain strains of the human papillomavirus, that can cause cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal, and oropharyngeal cancers. The vaccine is typically recommended to be administered during adolescence to provide protection before potential exposure to HPV.
The Hepatitis B Vaccine protects people from Hepatitis B virus infection which can cause chronic illness leading to liver disease or liver cancer.
Vaccines that can prevent a wide range of cancer types - called universal cancer vaccine or pan-cancer vaccine - are not yet available.
The ultimate goal is to develop a vaccine that can prevent many types of cancer, not just one.
Cancer Prevention Vaccine for Dogs
The preventive vaccine that was discussed at the veterinary medicine meeting in Phoenix was invented at Arizona State University by Professor Stephen Johnston.
His team discovered new antigens or neoantigens that are found on the surface of cancer cells, but not on normal cells. These proteins result from a genetic mutation called "frame-shift mutation" that occurs in mRNA's, instead of DNA's.
Frameshift Peptide Vaccine
In cells, errors in RNA processing are over 100 times more common compared to errors in DNA replication. Error rates in tumors are even further amplified compared to healthy cells, and the normal repair mechanisms are either overwhelmed or compromised. So these RNA errors end up creating multiple abnormal proteins, both on the surface of cancer cells and also found in a patient's blood.
After developing a technique to screen hundreds of thousands of these proteins, the team created a vaccine that targets approximately 30 of these abnormal proteins common for multiple cancers. With the vaccine, the immune system is stimulated to become vigilant for the appearance of tumor cells.
According to one of the articles,
"Johnston’s team found that the junk protein translated from mRNA frameshift mutations was highly immunogenic [can trigger an immune response]. Mice, dogs, and people with tumors generate antibodies to the peptides, but there are not enough of those antibodies to kill the cancer. They also found that subsets of peptides produced by different people overlapped—across both individuals and cancer types. By priming the immune system with a mighty dose of these antigens before cancer develops, Johnston surmised, it may be possible to stomp out tumors immediately as they appear—similar to how preventive vaccines fight infectious diseases."
Could the new vaccine safely and effectively help prevent cancer in dogs and in people?
Cancer Prevention Clinical Trial with 800 Dogs
Professor Johnston launched a company called Calviri and partnered with three veterinary schools to begin a large clinical trial for dogs in 2019.
Called VACCS (Vaccination Against Canine Cancer Study), the randomized trial is enrolling pups to receive either a vaccine or a placebo. All the dogs will return to the hospital for checkups 2-3 times a year. It is expected to conclude after enrolling 800 dogs, after about 5 years.
The researchers hypothesize that the vaccinated dogs will have a reduced risk of getting common cancers such as osteosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, mast cell tumors, and lymphoma.
A dog in the vaccine arm receives two sets of vaccines every two weeks for a total of four treatments, then annually.
A financial incentive is offered to defray the cost associated with diagnostics and treatment of any cancers that dogs develop, regardless of whether they are receiving a vaccine or placebo.
Here's a short video describing the trial.
TO QUALIFY, DOGS MUST MEET THE FOLLOWING CRITERIA:
Owners must live within 150 miles of one of the participating trial sites
University of Wisconsin–Madison · Madison, Wisconsin
Colorado State University · Fort Collins, Colorado
University of California–Davis · Davis, California
Age: 5.5 to 11.5 years old
Weight: 12 pounds (5 kg) or more
No history of previous cancer
No significant other illness that could result in a life span of less than 5 years
No history of previous autoimmune disease
No current treatment with oral or injectable immunosuppressive medications such as prednisone, cyclosporine, mycophenolate, or tacrolimus
The following breeds are eligible:
More information on enrollment can be found at the Veterinary School websites:
Prof Johnston's team is also investigating the possibility of using the vaccine as part of cancer treatment, and also applying their technology for early cancer detection and as a prognostic tool.
In a conversation with Canine Cancer Alliance, he mentioned that one of the early findings is that their frequent (twice-a-year) check-ups are helping with early cancer detection. Earlier when cancer is found, treatments have a greater chance of success and even a possibility for a complete cure.
Can therapeutic cancer vaccines also prevent cancer?
Today many dogs are getting cancer treatments that include therapeutic vaccines.
For example, Oncept vaccine helps reduce the risk of recurrence for dogs with oral melanoma. And the EGFR/HER2 peptide vaccine may help prevent metastasis of tumors that are over-expressing EGFR or HER2 receptors for example, osteosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, soft tissue sarcoma, and bladder cancer.
Could some therapeutic vaccines also be effective at reducing the risk of cancer? Some researchers think that they may have preventive potential.
A safe and effective cancer vaccine that can reduce the risk for a broad range of cancer types would help get us closer to ending cancer as we know it today. We hope that there will be more studies and clinical trials to help reach this goal.
Would you enroll your dog in a cancer prevention vaccine trial? Why or why not? Please leave a comment and let us know.
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Questions? Email us at info@ccralliance and we'll get back to you as soon as we can!
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All information provided by the Canine Cancer Alliance website is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice.
Always seek guidance from your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s health and medical condition.