Would you volunteer your dog for a cancer vaccine study? I certainly wouldn’t … but that’s exactly what well-meaning dog owners are doing.
A few weeks ago, Colorado State University put out a call for dogs to participate in their Vaccination Against Canine Cancer Study (VACCS). They’re looking for owners to volunteer healthy dogs for a 5-year study.
It’s certainly a worthy cause. Because the goal of the study is to help prevent cancer in people and dogs. And it’s not unusual for researchers to study cancer treatments in dogs … there’s lots of other cancer research going on using dogs as study subjects.
But this one’s a little different. I’ll tell you what’s unusual … and why I wouldn’t risk my dog’s health by volunteering him.
About The Dog Cancer Vaccine Study
ASU Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University created the vaccine. Director and Professor Dr Stephen Johnston says they’ve been working on it for about 12 years.
Originally they wanted to do the study in humans, but couldn’t get funding or support for it. So they proposed a trial in dogs and got the study approved.
Colorado State University‘s Flint Animal Cancer Center is leading the VACCS study. University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine and University of California Davis Center for Companion Animal Health are other VACCS trial sites.
The Flint Animal Cancer Center manages 30-35 clinical trials every year. They research treatments for cancers like osteosarcoma, lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma and brain tumors.
The goal of the VACCS study is to research a vaccine to prevent cancer in dogs … and hopefully one day, in humans too. The study started In 2019 and will run until May 2024. 500 dogs are enrolled and they’re looking for 300 more.
How The Vaccine Was Made
ASU screened 800 dogs for 8 major cancers. Then they looked at the neoepitopes that were common in the 8 tumors. Neoepitopes are the mutated proteins the tumors produce. And neoepitope vaccines target the patient-specific proteins.
ASU took 31 of these neoepitopes and made a vaccine for them. If they’re successful, Dr Johnston says, “the dog’s immune system will be pre-prepared to see a tumor and kill it.”
Dr Johnston admits …
“Most people in the cancer community will still say that this is impossible because every tumor is personal. They may be right. I think everybody that we’ve talked to in the community said there’s a possibility it might work. Our rationale is that if there’s a possibility it might work … the impact would be so big, it’s worth taking that chance.”
So it seems there’s a fair chance the vaccine – and the study – will fail.
Qualification Criteria For Dogs In The Cancer Vaccine Study
To qualify for the study, dogs must …
- Be 5.5 to 11.5 yrs old at the time of enrollment
- Weigh at least 12 pounds (5 kg)
- Have no history of previous cancer
- No have other significant illness that could result in a life span of less than 5 years
- Have no history of previous autoimmune disease
- Have no current treatment with oral or injectable immunosuppressive medications
- Be an eligible breed
The dogs must also live within 150 miles of one of the trial sites … Fort Collins, Colorado, Davis, California, or Madison, Wisconsin.
What Is Expected Of Dogs And Owners
Dogs will live at home during the study, but they’ll have to come to the trial site quite often.
Before they start, they’ll get a “thorough health screening” including bloodwork, chest x-rays and other tests. Then come the vaccines …
Each dog will start out with 4 vaccines (or placebos) at biweekly intervals. After that, they get annual boosters.
Twice a year, the dogs will come to the clinic for an exam by a cancer specialist.
Why Study Dogs?
You may wonder why researchers use dogs in cancer studies.
In the VACCS trial, the researchers have already studied this vaccine in mice and found it successful and effective. And, remember … they couldn’t get approval to study the vaccine in people. So dogs were the next best option.
There are other clinical cancer studies involving dogs … with the goal of eventually helping people as well. One reason to study dogs is that they get the same kinds of cancers as humans. But there are other reasons as well …
- Cancers in dogs develop naturally, as they do in people.
- Dogs live in the same environment … breathing the same air and drinking the same water.
- People’s and dogs’ immune systems are similar.
- We share 85% of our genetic make-up with dogs.
And cancers in both dogs and humans are similar in …
- How they look under a microscope.
- The way tumors grow and spread.
- How they respond to conventional treatment and novel therapies.
The National Cancer Institute funds a lot of “comparative oncology” studies being done in dogs. Comparative oncology studies look at naturally occurring cancers … not cancers deliberately created in a laboratory. Some dog studies that may translate to help humans include immunotherapy treatments … as well as research into osteosarcoma, a deadly cancer in dogs that also affects children.
Another advantage is that canine studies can be done in 1-3 years vs 5-10 in people. So they’re less expensive and can speed up the pace of drug development.
Dr Johnston says “70% of the tumor deaths in the world are in the developing countries. When we designed this, we always had the intention that it had to be inexpensive.” So that’s another reason they’re looking for dog volunteers … they’ll save money.
Why Enroll Your Dog In A Cancer Clinical Trial
Most cancer research in dogs is done in dogs who already have cancer … to test new cancer therapies. So, if your dog gets cancer and is eligible for a clinical trial … your dog could get cutting-edge therapy that’s not available elsewhere.
And a clinical trial could help you with the cost of cancer treatment. Funding for the trial will often cover part or all of the cost of treatment for your dog.
But there are still some serious drawbacks …
- Clinical trials are for conventional treatments. So if you want to avoid cancer drugs and treat your dog naturally … these trials are not for your dog.
- The treatment in these trials is still experimental … so it might be unsuccessful.
- The prognosis and potential side effects are unknown.
- Depending on the trial, your dog might get a placebo instead of treatment.
If your dog gets cancer and you’re interested in enrolling him in a trial … ask a lot of questions first. You’ll want to weigh the pros and cons extremely carefully.
And be sure to read what renowned Australian veterinarian. Dr Ian Billinghurst has to say about conventional cancer treatments.
What’s Different About The VACCS Study
There’s one huge difference. This trial is being done on healthy dogs … not in dogs who have cancer and might benefit from the trial.
In most other canine cancer studies, your dog already has cancer. So you might be able to justify the risks because your dog could get a promising innovative treatment he couldn’t otherwise have. And if you’re lucky, a cancer treatment trial could be life-saving.
But, in the VACCS trial, you start out with a healthy dog. And you expose him to some significant dangers in the trial. Is it fair to your dog to subject him to these experimental vaccines?
One reason to do it might be the high rate of cancer in dogs. Half of all dogs over 10 develop cancer. So, If the vaccine is successful, it might stop or slow cancer development in your dog. But remember, this is still an experiment that could go horribly wrong.
What if it caused cancer in your dog instead of preventing it? That could happen.
The researchers acknowledge the possibility. And realistically, any dog could get cancer … and it might not even be caused by the vaccine. But you’ll probably never know.
And there are other risks I’ll get into a bit later.
What If Your Dog Gets Cancer During VACCS
If any dog in the VACCS program gets cancer, the costs of diagnosis and treatment will be subsidized through the program. This is true even for dogs getting the placebo instead of the vaccine.
Dr Doug Thamm, Director of Clinical Research at the Flint Center, says …
“God forbid a dog in the study does end up getting cancer, there’s actually a financial incentive we can offer here at CSU to defray some of the costs associated with treating cancer,” he said. “So, a pretty good deal.”
That seems like an odd thing to say. Getting some expenses covered might be a relief … but I’d hardly call anything to do with a dog getting cancer a “pretty good deal.”
And I saw this question on the application form:
Are you willing to allow our staff to perform a necropsy (post-mortem/autopsy) should your dog pass away while enrolled in this study? For necropsied patients, private cremation and return of ashes to the owner is available.
I know dogs could die for many reasons. It doesn’t mean the study killed them. But still … this question just made the study scarier in my mind.
Why Are Dog Owners Volunteering?
I’m puzzled why someone would volunteer their dog for this study. No doubt part of the reason is that people trust vaccines. They credit them with protecting their dogs from disease. So they see this as an opportunity to protect their dogs from cancer.
They’re getting some vet exams and testing done as part of the program too … so maybe free vet care is another incentive.
Dr Thamm says, “The actual participants in the study are getting real-time benefit, and at the end of the day, hey, maybe they get less cancer too.”
Frankly, I didn’t find that very reassuring. But apparently, hundreds of other dog owners think it’s OK. As I mentioned earlier, about 500 dogs have been enrolled since the trial started in 2019.
One woman whose 7-year old dog is participating in the study explained her motivation. She’d lost her dad to lung cancer, she’d had breast cancer herself, and she had a 5-year old dog who died of lymphoma.
“Our dogs are our best friends and they love us unconditionally. I jumped at the opportunity to help people … now, down the road, in the future.”
Another woman said, “Almost everyone I know who has had a dog has had a dog with cancer. I wanted to do what I could to help advance the research.”
These are selfless and noble sentiments. Perhaps other dog owners trust that the vaccines can help prevent cancer in their dogs. But is it really fair to make your dog a guinea pig? I don’t even think it’s fair to guinea pigs.
What Are The Risks?
The risks are really an unknown factor at this stage. I imagine when the study accepts your dog, they ask you to sign a waiver. And that waiver probably lists some of the likely risks. But they’re not disclosed on the website or the application form.
The study started 2 years ago, so here’s what the researchers have said so far …
- The team tested the vaccine in mice and found it to be safe and effective.
- So far, the researchers “haven’t seen any kinds of side effects that would be worrisome.”
- The vaccine stimulates the immune system in the way the researchers hoped.
So, 2 years in, that’s encouraging. But this is a 5-year study. And it involves a lot of vaccines. Not just one.
Dogs start with 4 doses of the vaccine, every other week. Then they get a booster every year of the study. So, depending on when they enter the study, they could get 7 or 8 vaccines before the study ends in May 2024.
Yes, 8 vaccines. That’s a lot of experimental vaccines. And from other canine vaccine research, we know that even one vaccine can damage your dog.
What To Consider Before Enrolling Your Dog In This Study
Here are 3 reasons I would never volunteer my dog for this (or any other) vaccine trial.
#1 Common Vaccine Side Effects
Dr Ronald Schultz spent years researching dog vaccines. His main focus was measuring duration of immunity. But along the way, he compiled quite a list of the vaccine side effects he observed.
One of the “serious” side effects Dr Schultz listed was “disease or enhanced disease which the vaccine was designed to prevent.”
So … vaccines can cause the illness they’re supposed to prevent. Now, Dr Schultz was researching vaccines against infectious diseases. And cancer isn’t an infectious disease. But still … is that a risk you want to take with your dog? That this trial could actually give him cancer … instead of preventing it?
The researchers don’t expect that to happen. Dr Thamm says they expect to see a meaningful reduction in cancer cases in study participants. And he says the researchers will keep an eye out for any unexpected side effects as well.
Even so … I’d prefer not to expose my dog to that risk.
#2 Harmful Vaccine Ingredients
Any vaccine contains many ingredients that can harm your dog. This includes …
- Adjuvants (to increase the immune response)
- Preservatives (including heavy metals like mercury)
- Stabilizers and attenuating agents (like formaldehyde)
- Buffering agents (chemicals like borax, glycerol or sorbitol)
- Surfactants (emulsifiers like polysorbate 80, a harmful toxin)
- Virus particles (contamination from the animal tissues used to grow the vaccines)
- Contaminates (like glyphosate)
- Foreign animal tissues (growth medium like chicken embryos, bovine serum)
In fact, even US Congress has said that vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe.” (That was the phrase they used in 1986 when they created the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.)
Most dogs already get far too many vaccines in their lifetimes. So when you sign your dog up to get 8 more … you’re just adding to the toxins you put in his body. Toxins that can and do contribute to cancer.
So, again, could participating in this study increase your dog’s chances of cancer? If that’s even a possibility … why risk it?
#3 Increased Stress
Dogs who participate in the VACCS program have a lot of extra vet visits.
Before they start, they come in for bloodwork, chest x-rays and other tests. Then, twice a year, they come in for an exam by a cancer specialist.
That sounds like a lot of poking and prodding to me. Some dogs seem to enjoy vet visits. But even if they like the social aspect (and the extra treats) … they probably don’t relish the needles and x-ray machines. (And the extra radiation exposure is risky.)
And what about today’s pandemic situation? The three venues are implementing COVID rules with curbside drop-off. If you can’t be with your dog at the exams, will he be more stressed?
It’s a fact that stress can increase your dog’s susceptibility to disease. Holistic veterinarian Dr Jeff Feinman says …
“Emotional stress can absolutely exacerbate physical issues including hypothyroidism and skin allergies. The many manifestations of stress on people have been well recognized for over 20 years. The harmful effects of stress are also being studied in animals and can be very harmful to overall health.”
So, that’s one more concern I’d have about volunteering my dog for a program like this. If you have an anxious dog, or if your dog gets stressed at the vet … don’t increase that stress by participating in this trial.
What Does This All Mean?
With these risks in mind, this is my opinion …
It’s one thing to enroll your dog for a clinical cancer trial if he already has cancer. He could get some cutting edge therapy … and treatment costs would likely be covered or subsidized.
But to volunteer a healthy dog for this kind of experimentation? It’s certainly a very noble, generous thing to do on behalf of other dogs and people … but I just can’t fathom exposing my precious canine family member to these risks.
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