EPISODE 170 | RELEASED June 6, 2022
A Vaccine to Prevent Dog Cancer?! VACCS Trial Brings Hope | Dr. Jenna Burton
Scientists have developed a vaccine to prevent dog cancer, and it is being tested out right now in Colorado, Wisconsin, and California.
The Vaccination Against Canine Cancer Study (VACCS) is testing out a vaccine that will hopefully prevent dogs from getting eight of the most common cancers. As of June 1st the study finished enrolling 800 healthy dogs, each of whom will be followed for five years after getting the initial vaccination series.
Listen in to hear Dr. Jenna Burton, one of the oncologists working on the study, explain how the vaccine was designed, which dogs can participate, and what they are hoping to see and learn. Even if the vaccine doesn’t perform as well as hoped, this study will provide a huge amount of valuable information on cancer development in dogs that can help all of our future canine companions.
Links Mentioned in Today’s Show:
VACCS Trial – Colorado State University
VACCS Trial – University of Wisconsin-Madison
VACCS Trial – University of California-Davis
[00:00:00] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: And that’s been, been the core of it. So a pan-cancer vaccine that is affordable. And what affordable means is very different in the US versus Subsaharan Africa. And so we want to prevent cancer worldwide, it has to be very inexpensive.
[00:00:16] >> Announcer: Welcome to Dog Cancer Answers, where we help you help your dog with cancer. Here’s your host, James Jacobson.
[00:00:24] >> James Jacobson: Hello friend, and welcome to Dog Cancer Answers. We get a lot of questions here about how to prevent my dog from getting cancer. How do I do it? Well, what if I said there was a vaccine that could prevent cancer in both dogs and people. There isn’t. Just yet. But they’re actually doing research on one right now. And that is what today’s episode is all about.
There is a fascinating study going on right now called the Vaccination Against Cancer Study – VACCS – which is looking at a potential vaccine that could prevent cancer in both dogs and later on in people.
To talk about that we are joined by Dr. Jenna Burton. She’s at Colorado State University and she and her colleagues have been involved in this study. Dr. Burton, thanks so much for being with us.
[00:01:18] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here. A little nervous, but.
[00:01:22] >> James Jacobson: Well, I am so excited because this is verging on science fiction. I don’t know. This is like, the concept of a vaccine that could prevent cancer in people, but starting with dogs, is pretty cool. And that’s what you guys are doing.
[00:01:39] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah, I mean it is kind of out there. It’s a big idea. There are definitely some significant doubters, but you know, these are the kinds of projects if, if you don’t try, you never find out. So we’re trying.
[00:01:52] >> James Jacobson: Is this like, I don’t know, a moonshot or a hail Mary, or like, how do you describe it to friends and people who are not, you know, scientists like yourself?
[00:02:02] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah, well, you know, this study is really exciting to be a part of. You know, my career and so many other people’s career, have been focused on cancer treatment. And so for me, that’s for mainly dogs and cats with cancer and, you know, to spend so much time with those pets and their families and everything that they go through, to think about, you know, could there be a way in the future that we prevent some of this disease.
And even if we only prevented a small fraction of that, the burden that these animals and people, and the emotion and costs that go along with all this, you know, to think about potentially reducing that, um, is pretty amazing. And then if we could go outside of veterinary medicine and think about how this could apply potentially to people, to our friends and family, you know, it, it’s pretty, pretty amazing to think about. So.
[00:02:48] >> James Jacobson: Well, it’s pretty profound. So when you go to work on this moonshot, do you think, I am looking for a vaccine to prevent human cancer, or are you like thinking dogs? Like when you go to work, what do you think?
[00:03:05] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: You know, I, as a veterinarian, I’m always a veterinarian. So I tend to think about my patients, but, um, so our collaborator, investigator that, um, is the PI of this project, his name’s Stephen Johnston*,* he’s at Arizona State University and he’s the big brain behind this. And he’s definitely one of those amazing big idea guys. And so his goal is to find a way to prevent cancer that is affordable worldwide. So that’s a pretty lofty goal.
[00:03:36] >> James Jacobson: It’s, it is. I mean, it sounds like this amazing goal. I mean, but Stephen is not a doctor. He’s not an oncologist. He’s a researcher. And you are an oncologist and you work with a team of incredible, you know, highly respected oncologists. What is that like? What is it like to have this, this PI – and we don’t mean private investigator, principal investigator right?
[00:03:57] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Principal investigator. Yeah. Thanks.
[00:03:59] >> James Jacobson: He’s not, he’s not a Magnum PI. So what is it like to have a thought leader, a person like that sort of leading this charge and you doing the science that either will back it up or refute it?
[00:04:11] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: It’s really fun to be part of this team. And it’s a group of colleagues. So the study is being conducted at three sites. So Colorado State is one of them. It’s also happening at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California-Davis.
[00:04:28] >> James Jacobson: And those are some of the top, I mean, vet schools in the country that focus on cancer.
[00:04:34] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Absolutely. Yeah. All of us that are working on the project are oncologists, but one of the reason that these sites were chosen is that they actually have really strong community practice services within the veterinary teaching hospital as well. So we serve a lot of healthy animals that come in for their wellness visits, for their preventative vaccines and that sort of thing.
Um, and also in areas where we’ve got a robust client population from which to draw. ‘Cause this is an 800 dog study, which is a lot of dogs to enroll, so a lot of healthy dogs.
[00:05:04] >> James Jacobson: Okay. So let’s go into how the study has been structured with these 800 dogs.
[00:05:09] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Sure. So I might just, if it’s all right, just back it up a hair and talk about what we’re trying to do with the vaccine if that’s okay.
[00:05:17] >> James Jacobson: Sure.
[00:05:17] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: And then talk about the details of the study. So the vaccine is designed to find a way to kind of train the body to be on high alert for some changes that happen when cancer cells develop. And so we know that there is a ton of genetic mutations that happen with various cancers and they are often, you know, very different between cancers, but what Dr. Johnston and his team have discovered is that there are some very common signatures that appear across cancers.
And so if we can use this vaccine, this cancer preventative vaccine, to train the body in a very early way to recognize when these signals are being developed, to go and attack those cells that look like those are early new cancer cells, then we could either prevent cancer from developing or even delay the onset for a period of time of cancer developing, even if it – cancer’s a tricky thing, um, it finds all sorts of ways to hide in the body. So even if it could evade the immune system eventually, still even getting a delayed onset of cancer would be helpful.
[00:06:25] >> James Jacobson: So he was looking for, I think these foreign peptides that are common among common cancers?
[00:06:31] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah. So he’s found that there’s some significant overlap in some of the neoantigens or new peptides that are developed on cancer cells, secondary to some common mutations that happen across cancers. So it would be a pan-cancer vaccine.
Um, so there’s kind of eight common tumor types that are incorporated into this vaccine. Things like bone cancer, bladder cancer, lung cancer, mammary, or – you know, that’s the equivalent of breast cancer in people – um, and some other very common cancers that we see both in dogs and in people.
[00:07:04] >> James Jacobson: I was wondering, so you said lung cancer, ’cause I don’t think lung cancer is that common in dogs, is it?
[00:07:09] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: You know, it, it’s not the most cancer that we see, but we do see it with some frequency in older patients. Yeah. It’s a little bit different than what they see in people, but we do see it in our dogs. Definitely.
[00:07:20] >> James Jacobson: Okay. So he took those eight cancers, looked for these, these foreign peptides, which are things that are produced by these tumors, and then effectively built a vaccine to, to build the immune system to say, Hey, let’s attack when you see any of these peptides.
[00:07:37] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Exactly. To train the immune system to be on kind of early alert. And if they see any of those peptides developing, then attack and destroy.
[00:07:46] >> James Jacobson: Okay. So then he had the vaccine. How long did it take for him to develop the vaccine?
[00:07:50] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know specifically, but this is a project that he has been working on for quite some time. And so then thinking about how do we, how do we test this, and doing all the early experiments in the laboratory to see, you know, does this idea work? And the laboratory studies suggest that yeah, there’s some definite potential here.
So, so how do we test this in a kind of a real model? And so we think about what it would take to do this study in people – we’d need healthy volunteers that we would have to vaccinate at a relatively young age and then follow them for decades to see if they develop cancer or not. And so this is where our pets, the animals that we live with in our own house, can be really helpful for answering some of these questions.
[00:08:37] >> James Jacobson: So if that was the original, like, of course we’ll start with kids and then try this, it just didn’t get approval or reception, or like people didn’t want to do that?
[00:08:45] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: I don’t even know that, that you could sell that just because of the, you know, if you think about the cost, um, and you know, the, all the early studies that would have to happen to make that happen, looking at dogs is a really smart way to do it. Dogs develop a lot of the same cancers that people do.
Our treatments are often very similar. Unlike laboratory animals that are used in some of these studies, like mice and other rodents, our dogs have a natural, healthy immune system that would respond appropriately to a vaccination that was to prevent cancer. Our dogs live in our same environment. They, you know, drink the same water. They breathe the same air. Often they sleep in the same bed, um, much to my own dog’s dismay, that’s not allowed in our house.
[00:09:31] >> James Jacobson: Uh oh. Doctor, we’ll talk about that. I’ll, I’ll advocate on your dog’s behalf.
[00:09:36] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Trust me. She’s been trying to have that conversation for a long time. And dogs, you know, unfortunately for those of us that live with them and love them, have a much shorter life span than people.
And so that whole, you know, seven years of a dog’s life is equivalent to one year in a human’s life is actually pretty helpful in this situation in that we can follow these dogs from middle-aged to old age in a pretty short timeframe and get that information a lot more quickly than you could in people.
[00:10:07] >> James Jacobson: Okay. So that’s why dogs were chosen. And I think it was sort of a happy circumstance as I understand, like Dr. Johnston met your mentor and a friend of the show Dr. Thamm right?
[00:10:18] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yup. Thamm.
[00:10:18] >> James Jacobson: And he’s who you work with on this and as, as all part of this, ’cause it is a very small community of veterinary oncologists in the United States and anywhere in the world, actually, it’s pretty small.
So he met, Johnston and Thamm met, and then they said, Hey, we can try this on dogs. And that’s where you and some of your colleagues got enrolled.
[00:10:38] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah, absolutely. So Doug Thamm was the initial contact with Stephen at ASU and kind of they together worked on building out this idea and, um, recruiting other sites and at that time I was at the University of California-Davis and so Dr. Thamm contacted me there and to see if I, you know, would be interested in participating. And so, yeah, it sounded like a really interesting opportunity. And then his mentor, David Vail at, uh, Wisconsin is involved as well.
And you’re right. It’s a very small community. So Doug Thamm was my mentor as a resident, uh, David Vail was his mentor, so, uh.
[00:11:16] >> James Jacobson: It’s a small fraternity/sorority of veterinary oncologists.
[00:11:19] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah, exactly. Yup.
[00:11:20] >> James Jacobson: Okay. So now, that’s sort of the background. So let’s get into to what you’re doing with these 800 dogs and how they were selected and what’s going on.
[00:11:28] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: So obviously we needed to work with healthy dogs that never had a history of cancer. So one of the things that we’re doing when we’re recruiting these dogs is kind of a, an extensive medical record review. So the people working on the study get the medical records, at least three years worth, and just kind of comb through them and make sure that, you know, they don’t find anything.
Sometimes there are some cancers that don’t behave very aggressively and we take them off at surgery and we forget that they even happened. So they’re looking for things like that. We wanted to follow these dogs for, you know, the period of time that they would likely to be developing cancer. And so the age range that we picked is that we would enroll dogs that were essentially five and a half to 11 and a half in this study, with the thought being seven or eight is about the average age of cancer development for many of our dogs.
We wanted to catch them before that, and then have a timeframe where, you know, many of these dogs would still be living if we followed them for five years. So that’s how we determined the age range. And, uh, it’s not open to all healthy dogs. We have restricted it to certain breeds that are more likely to develop cancer than other breeds, because it was kind of, it’s critical if we’re looking to try to prevent cancer we, unfortunately need cancer to occur in the arm that’s getting the placebo as part of the vaccine to ensure that the dogs that are getting active vaccine, that that’s actually working.
[00:12:55] >> James Jacobson: So you chose breeds more likely to get – and there’s also a weight limit and you can’t do small dogs, or you’re not using small dogs.
[00:13:02] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Well the weight limit’s uh, just about 10 pounds. So not the real teeny tiny ones. And part of that is just some of the blood samples that we collect at each visit. We just need to make sure that they’re large enough to-
[00:13:13] >> James Jacobson: We’re gonna drain your dog.
[00:13:15] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Right. Exactly. We want our patients to be able to continue in the study, but collecting those samples is really important so we can look at changes in the immune system and that sort of thing. We’re banking, all sorts of blood that we’re collecting at each visit for these dogs that’s going to be helpful later on as we go back and analyze this.
[00:13:34] >> James Jacobson: So at this point you’ve enrolled all 800 dogs?
[00:13:37] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: We are so close, but we’re not there yet.
[00:13:39] >> James Jacobson: So if you’re listening to this now, you could still get your dog in this trial, right?
[00:13:44] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Exactly. Um, we’re going to get the most recent update on Monday, but, um, I think we’re in the range of 15 to 17 dogs left. So we’re, we’re on the home stretch, but.
[00:13:56] >> James Jacobson: You can easily fill that up with people who listen to Dog Cancer Answers
[00:13:58] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: That would be awesome. They have to live within 150 miles of, uh, CSU, UC Davis, or the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but yeah, we’re, we’re hungry for our, to attend to your dogs.
[00:14:11] >> James Jacobson: So what is involved and what are the risks if I’m going to put my dog in this trial?
[00:14:18] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah. So that’s always really important to ask for your listeners that are thinking about participating in a clinical trial, and we often have a lengthy consent form that goes through all those things. What are my expectations, what does my dog have to do, and what are my risks?
So, and basically these dogs are screened, once we identify them as potential candidates, they’re the right breed – and I should mention that mixed breeds are eligible as well because mixed breeds are pretty common and they show up frequently as, um, some of the more common breeds in a lot of our cancer studies. And for your listeners, we do consider Doodles and that sort of thing as a mixed breed for, for this purpose.
[00:14:57] >> James Jacobson: Yeah. So there’s a whole bunch of breeds and we’ll post a link with the show notes that lists all the breeds, of which my dog is not, Maltese are not. They’re too small, but.
[00:15:06] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: And we don’t see a lot of Maltese with cancer. So.
[00:15:09] >> James Jacobson: Okay. That’s great.
[00:15:10] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah.
[00:15:10] >> James Jacobson: Okay. So, so what are the things that one will have to go through or consent to?
[00:15:15] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: So we have them come in for an initial screening visit. And so they get a thorough examination by an oncologist, looking for any lumps and bumps that haven’t been previously detected, making sure that, you know, these are healthy dogs.
If we do find lumps and bumps on the outside of the body that hadn’t been worked up before, we’ll get some aspirates of those to make sure that those are all benign things. We look at just basic blood work, um, to make sure that these dogs are overall systemically healthy, that there’s nothing lurking that we don’t know about.
Um, our dogs are very good at, at hiding things sometimes until they no longer can. And then we also are screening these dogs with chest x-rays and abdominal ultrasound. And the reason for that is we’re just looking to see if there’s any potential for occult cancer. So do we have something brewing inside that just, we haven’t been able to detect externally.
And so just looking internally to make sure that we don’t have any surprises there to ensure these dogs are, are good candidates for enrollment.
[00:16:14] >> James Jacobson: So the dogs are all getting a thorough workup in order to be deemed eligible.
[00:16:19] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yup.
[00:16:20] >> James Jacobson: And all of this, of course, doesn’t cost the dog parent anything.
[00:16:24] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yep, absolutely. So the study is well funded, thanks to the, um, to Open Philanthropy that funded this project. And so the cost of those screening exams are borne by the study, not the client.
[00:16:36] >> James Jacobson: Okay. So what percentage of dogs that go in for the initial evaluation do you enroll?
[00:16:42] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: It’s pretty high actually. So, um, I don’t have exact percentages, but you know, that’s something that we’ll be looking at once we enroll all the dogs, what percentage of dogs did we think were healthy coming in that we actually ended up excluding, and what were the reasons, and how did we find it, which I think will be interesting for the veterinary community. But most of the dogs end up getting enrolled.
[00:17:02] >> James Jacobson: Okay.
[00:17:02] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: We do have some wiggle room in our screening that if we do see some changes on our ultrasound or chest x-rays that we can’t a hundred percent say, is this cancer, is this not, we’ll get them back in four to six weeks to recheck those, to see if it’s changed. You know, a lot of dogs have little nodules in their spleen that most of the time aren’t cancer, but we can’t always be sure. So, um, we do have some wiggle room that we’ll recheck some things just so we feel most confident before we move in and start actually study procedures.
[00:17:35] >> James Jacobson: Okay. So once the dog is enrolled, what happens, how frequently do they get vaccinated? And tell me about these blood samples and what else is involved.
[00:17:44] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah, so, um, we just get some, collect some blood samples for research purposes at baseline, um, before they get their first vaccine. And that’s really to look at kind of changes in the immune profile in these dogs as they move along.
And so they get their first vaccine. And then we see them back every other week for three more visits. So a total of four vaccines in the initial booster series. And then, um, we see them every six months after that and they get a booster vaccine annually. So we’re seeing them back every six months, just for a physical exam and a small blood collection just to store so we’ve got those samples for further research in the future. And then a booster vaccine annually.
[00:18:29] >> James Jacobson: So why would I want to enroll my dog in this experiment?
[00:18:33] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Well, as a dog owner, I’m sure you can relate to, um, a lot of dog owners are just very altruistic people. I mean, who hasn’t been affected by cancer at some point in their life?
And so our dog owners are really motivated. They recognize the value that we can get by investigating some of these things and in our pets and people are really motivated to make a, a difference to see if they can participate. And they are, you know, we’re very clear, this is a randomized blinded placebo controlled study. So half these dogs are getting a sham vaccine.
[00:19:10] >> James Jacobson: Which is basically like just inert water based substance, right?
[00:19:14] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah. They’re, they’re actually getting kind of a similar vaccine, but the, it’s all nonsense. So, um, so.
[00:19:22] >> James Jacobson: What does that mean? What are, what are you injecting in these placebo dogs?
[00:19:26] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Exactly. Um, no. So instead of like the specific peptides that we, um, are wanting the immune system to detect, um, these are just kind of scrambled jumbled nonsense. So.
[00:19:37] >> James Jacobson: But there’s no risk to this nonsense or is there a, could there be attendant risk to the placebo?
[00:19:43] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: So we don’t think there’s any more risk to the placebo than there is the active vaccine. Um, some things that we talked about early on – so this is the first time that, you know, this has been really investigated in dogs, so what are the potential risks?
You know, anybody that’s gotten a vaccine, and COVID’s actually made this conversation a lot easier.
[00:20:00] >> James Jacobson: Have we heard about that recently?
[00:20:03] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah. So, you know, pain at the injection site. So muscle soreness. Some dogs may get a fever for a day or two after, have some flu like symptoms. We have had some dogs that have developed some vomiting after the, the vaccine. And so those are all things that we think any of the dogs could get with their vaccination.
The, one of the rare things that we kind of were hypothesizing is could we stimulate the immune system too much and cause potentially auto-immune diseases. So that’s another risk that we talk to owners about. At this point, you know, that’s not something that we think is happening, but we do have a data safety monitoring board that oversees what’s happening in the study and reviews all the information on an annual basis, looking at our side effects and what’s happening and just to make sure that we’re not having any untoward side effects that could be detrimental to these dogs.
So for the most part, dogs have tolerated the vaccine series very well, I would say some, some mild muscle discomfort after the vaccination is probably the most common thing that we see.
[00:21:08] >> James Jacobson: So I’m intrigued with this, this, the placebo, you know, I always think of our placebo as being a totally inert, a sugar pill. But in the case of this, the placebo has something in it, it’s just, doesn’t have the thing that you’re testing for.
[00:21:21] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah.
[00:21:21] >> James Jacobson: Why is that?
[00:21:24] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Um, it actually, we think most of the side effects are coming from kind of a, an immune booster that we’re giving along with some of the vaccines, um, that both groups are getting, ’cause it’s non-specific, just because, um, some of the vaccines that we’re giving are just by the nature of that type of vaccine, they’re not great at ramping up the immune system on, on their own. So we give them a little jumpstart.
So yeah, it’s, it’s kind of all the components of the, the vaccine. But just that they’re not going to be recognized. Yeah.
[00:21:54] >> James Jacobson: But not the peptides that-
[00:21:56] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yep.
[00:21:57] >> James Jacobson: Okay. So you’ve started this in 2019.
[00:22:00] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yes. Yeah.
[00:22:02] >> James Jacobson: You started enrolling dogs back then, or?
[00:22:03] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah.
[00:22:04] >> James Jacobson: Yeah. So this was kind of fun to do in the midst of the pandemic, when there were all these conversations about vaccinations in general. How have those conversations, uh, collided?
[00:22:16] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: The pandemic kind of wreaked havoc on this study, honestly, because, you know, we started in 2019, as you mentioned. And our goal was to have all these dogs enrolled within 18 months. So definitely within two years. And so now here we are, um, and it’s 2022 and we’re still scrounging for our last handful of dogs. With the pandemic, research was shut down at many of these institutions unless it was considered essential research. And so when you’re testing a potential cancer preventative vaccine in healthy dogs, that doesn’t really cut the mustard as essential research.
So the study was put on hold at the three sites for variable times depending on the institution. And so that really kind of messed up our enrollment goals. And then, and then you’ve got the challenges of, okay, now we’re, now we can do the research here, but do owners want to, even though that, you know, everybody’s doing curbside service at that point, do owners still wanna be having that extra activity that they’re undertaking during a pandemic.
So yeah. You never know what’s gonna happen in research, but I’ll tell you a global pandemic was not on our radar in 2019. So.
[00:23:26] >> James Jacobson: It wasn’t probably listed as one of the risks associated with the study.
[00:23:30] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah. But it’s been interesting because you know, um, so many of our clients, you know, have vaccinations on their mind or have had their own recent vaccinations. And so it’s made those conversations a little bit easier to talk about because people can relate to their own experience and think about, you know, what their dog might be experiencing too.
[00:23:49] >> James Jacobson: That makes sense. Dr. Burton, we’re going to take a break right now, but we will be right back. We’ll talk a little bit about the economics of this, because those are interesting. We’ll be right back.
We are back with Dr. Jenna Burton. Dr. Burton, let’s talk a little bit about the economics of this. So I guess one of the reasons to enroll your dog in this type of study is if your dog does contract cancer during the course of the study, i.e., the dog’s life, it’s covered, right?
[00:24:19] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Partially. Yeah. So dogs that happen to develop cancer while they’re enrolled in this study, whether they’re in the placebo arm or the active arm, and there’s only a small subset of people that know what those divisions are. And so, um.
[00:24:32] >> James Jacobson: I was gonna say, that’s like you don’t, I mean, you don’t know.
[00:24:34] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: No. No.
[00:24:35] >> James Jacobson: That’s just a small. Yeah.
[00:24:36] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah. Nobody, nobody at any of the sites working on the study knows if they’re giving the active vaccine, or if they’re giving a placebo. So any dog enrolled in this study, if they were to develop cancer, there is a financial incentives that is applied to their hospital account where they’re receiving care to help offset some of the costs of cancer. So it doesn’t cover all costs, but you know, it’s, I think $2,000, which is helpful for many of our clients.
So I think the other thing is, is that these dogs are getting evaluated by a board certified oncologist every six months. And so we’re um, always on high alert for, you know, lumps or bumps or changes or things that make us worried about cancer and investigating those things.
One of the things that, that we need to do, if you think about all the dogs that are enrolled at at each study site, is that we really need to maintain good relationships with the primary care veterinarians that are sending these dogs in, because we really still need these dogs to be going to their primary care vet for all their wellness activities. So their other preventative vaccines and their heartworm testing and preventative.
People always laugh at me, but I’ve been doing this so long, like I take my own dog to our primary care clinic because I don’t give vaccines anymore. And I don’t know what Heartgard medications I should be putting my dog on. So I always explain to clients when they ask me to do that, I’m like, I don’t do that for my own dog ’cause I feel like it’s more appropriate for someone else to do that. So.
[00:26:03] >> James Jacobson: Right.
[00:26:03] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: So maintaining these relationships and making sure that our clients are still, um, seeing their primary care veterinarian for those wellness visits is really important. And we often have them, if they have something that they’re concerned about, we have them start with their primary care vet, as they normally would, to start the workup. And if their primary care veterinarian is worried that cancer is likely, um, then they, if they haven’t made that diagnosis, then they may send them to one of the sites to kind of continue that work up.
[00:26:32] >> James Jacobson: Now I have read that the grand vision, Dr. Johnston’s vision of this vaccine, if it proves to be successful, is that this would be a vaccine available not only to dogs, but to people, at a really low cost. That’s sort of the compelling vision of what this could turn out to be, right?
[00:26:49] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s been the core of it. So a pan-cancer vaccine that is affordable. And what affordable means is very different in the US versus Subsaharan Africa. And so if we want to prevent cancer worldwide, it has to be very inexpensive.
[00:27:04] >> James Jacobson: So you said that this was privately funded through philanthropy. Tell me a little bit about that. How did that work out?
[00:27:11] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah, so it’s, um, it’s actually, uh, a group called Open Philanthropy. And their mission is to fund kind of high risk, high reward projects. So not to say risk in risk to patient or people enrolled, but we’re laying down a large chunk of cash and there’s a chance that this may not work. So more of an investment risk.
[00:27:34] >> James Jacobson: And when you say, a chance, what’s the likelihood of this not working?
[00:27:40] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Uh, that’s a question I can’t answer. I don’t know.
[00:27:43] >> James Jacobson: Yeah, but I mean in your heart, I mean that clearly you’ll only know afterwards, but I mean, in your heart, again, this is sort of like, what drives you? Do you go to work thinking this is a moonshot, this is a hail Mary, this is like something that, it, everything, what I know about cancer says this shouldn’t work because cancers are so unique and so related to the individual patient, whether a dog or a person, but we’re looking for this universal pan-cancer thing. But it could work. I mean, that’s kind of what I’m really getting at. What do you, as someone who has spent years studying cancer, think as you approach this?
[00:28:23] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: I’m a realistic optimist. And so I, you know, it’s not my assumption that this vaccine is going to prevent cancer in every dog enrolled in this study. I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic that it’s going to do something. It may be that we see a reduction in one type of cancer, but maybe not all cancers.
You know, another thing that we’re going to look at is, is there a delay on the onset of cancer? So if we could hold off an eight year old dog from developing cancer until it was 11, that would be a win for a lot of people. And so I think my gut is, is that it’s going to do something. Is it going to do everything that we think? That I don’t know.
I think the other really great thing about this study is that even if it were, even if we were that we didn’t see any difference between the group in any of the things that we’re looking at, it’s giving us an opportunity to look at 800 healthy dogs and we’re collecting all this information on them, following them over time, we’re collecting information about what supplements they’re getting, what they’re eating, all those things. And so I think, I think there’s just going to be a lot of data, useful data, and maybe not the stuff that we planned on, that will ultimately come out of this study. That’s gonna be really interesting and valuable, maybe not to the human community, but to the veterinary community for sure.
[00:29:42] >> James Jacobson: That’s fascinating. Because I mean, we’ve talked on this show in the past about the Morris Foundation’s Golden Retriever Study, right. Which is a lot of dogs.
[00:29:49] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah. The Lifetime Study. 3,000.
[00:29:51] >> James Jacobson: 3,000 dogs, 800 dogs. I mean, the data that veterinary oncology can get out of it sounds like it could be worthwhile, even if this vaccine proves to not be what it is, you know, everything that it was hoped for.
[00:30:05] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s just a ton of information to learn. And, um, you know, so it, we’re already talking about some early, early projects that we’re going to look at just with kind of the baseline data of all the dogs we’ve screened for this study. So what common bloodworks do we see on these older healthy dogs, what are common findings on our screening chest x-rays, abdominal ultrasounds in these older healthy dogs.
[00:30:26] >> James Jacobson: Are you starting to see patterns already?
[00:30:28] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: I think one of the things I’ll be really curious to look at is for the dogs that ultimately aren’t enrolled in those studies, how we’re detecting these, um, early cancers that hadn’t been noted yet. And I think that’s really going to be interesting. Are we detecting most of these just on our physical exam or are we detecting more of these through our more expensive imaging tests? And, um, I think if it ends up that we’re detecting most of the, these by physical exam, that’s really important information for our veterinary colleagues out there.
You know, your, your skills with your eyes and your hands, what you’re, you know, seeing on that patient, are really valuable. I think veterinarians are always quick to, we sell ourselves short, you know? Um, but I, I think we shouldn’t devalue our skillset. So.
[00:31:13] >> James Jacobson: You say you sell yourself short, tell me about that.
[00:31:16] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Oh, um, I think, I think veterinarians are a group that tend to be pretty hard on themselves.
Um, and so, always second guessing what they think, what they see. So, you know, you get a bunch of people that do really well in school and then, you know, you put them in a competitive vet school environment and all sorts of crazy things happen. But I think, you know, as clinicians, we, we really need to rely on our skills, our basic skills, like physical exam skills in a way that our human colleagues often don’t or don’t have to.
[00:31:46] >> James Jacobson: Any regrets about going from California to Colorado to participate in this?
[00:31:51] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: No, I mean, I miss my California colleagues dearly and, um, my colleague, uh, Jen Wilcox has, uh, stepped up and is leading the charge at UC Davis now. And, uh, Colorado has always been, been kind of my second home. So it’s nice to be back home.
[00:32:07] >> James Jacobson: That’s awesome. So just getting back to the money piece a moment, you said this was an organization, what’s it called? The non, the-
[00:32:13] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Open Philanthropy.
[00:32:14] >> James Jacobson: Open Philanthropy. How much was the total? How much is this study?
[00:32:19] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: This study is, the study funding is for just over $6 million.
[00:32:25] >> James Jacobson: Okay. So in the grand scheme of things, not that much, but, for 800 dogs.
[00:32:32] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah. Well, and you think about all the personnel that are, um, doing the immunoassays in the laboratories at ASU, the personnel that are enrolling the dogs and, um, reviewing all the records. So, um, there’s all that, the cost of all the visits are paid for as part of the study, all the diagnostics.
So there’s patient care, and then there’s the actual manpower to run, run this study too. But compared to what this would cost in humans, it’s a drop in the bucket and so, you know, not only can we learn information more quickly by working with our dogs, we can learn it a lot more, you know, effectively and efficiently as far, from a financial standpoint.
[00:33:13] >> James Jacobson: So when do you know if there’s something to this? When do you know if the hypothesis is being proven or, or not?
[00:33:22] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah, so, it’s a five-year study. So we got to, we got to wait a little bit longer. And so, um, we will, I think at the end of year five, when we analyze the data.
[00:33:34] >> James Jacobson: Okay. And year five ends, when? Well, it didn’t really start in 2019. So what year will that be?
[00:33:40] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: That’s a good question. I think we are, I’ve lost all sense of time.
[00:33:44] >> James Jacobson: We don’t know. I don’t know.
[00:33:47] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah.
[00:33:47] >> James Jacobson: What month is it? What year is it?
[00:33:48] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah. And we, we are seeking a no-cost extension to try to continue the work to make up for some of the time that we lost with the pandemic shutdown. So, um, so TBD?
[00:34:00] >> James Jacobson: Okay. So we don’t know when, but what happens if there’s like, huh? There’s something here. What, what, what’s the next step?
[00:34:07] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Great question. So there are several other projects that are spinning out of this one already. And so one of them is, you know, looking at a potential screening diagnostic. So can we pick up some of these, you know, signature profiles on a blood sample that may suggest that your dog has early cancer and we need to investigate further.
So that’s something that a lot of groups are looking into, liquid biopsies. So a blood sample to look for early cancer.
[00:34:34] >> James Jacobson: I like that. Liquid biopsy.
[00:34:36] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yeah. Yeah. You can either get a vision of just like this clear liquid or some oozy, gross biopsy thing. So however you want to go with that. So obviously publication of, of our findings and, and assessment by the scientific community to see where this goes from here. Is there interest in moving in, forward in people, do we have enough data to support that?
So those aren’t really conversations that we’re having right now, but as we get closer, yeah, it’s going to be a bigger and different crew. I’m happy working with dogs and cats. So I don’t, I don’t need to go beyond that*.*
[00:35:10] >> James Jacobson: Moving to, I mean, ’cause I mean again, this is all designed from man’s best friend to potentially man and women.
[00:35:17] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Yep.
[00:35:18] >> James Jacobson: Do you miss being a regular, you know, you’re still seeing patients, but it’s different. Do you miss what you were doing previously?
[00:35:27] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Actually, this is only the, this, um, the Vaccine Against Canine Cancer Study is only a small part of what I’m doing. So I still get to do all my-
[00:35:35] >> James Jacobson: Okay. I had this idea that this is all you’re doing. Okay.
[00:35:40] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: It’s, it’s part of my job. So, you know, I saw five dogs on, that are on the study today. And, um, got to see them for, some for their 6 month visit, some for their 12 month visit. But I still get to do all my regular clinic stuff in the hospital and teaching and other research activities. So it’s a nice bonus to, to what I’m already doing.
[00:36:01] >> James Jacobson: So when you tell your other clients or your friends about this, what do they say about this study?
[00:36:07] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: They’re really intrigued. I mean, um, and I have had friends that have ended up enrolling their dogs – without any arm twisting from me, to be clear, ’cause that would not be ethical.
[00:36:17] >> James Jacobson: Right.
[00:36:17] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: Um, um, so I mean, people are just really intrigued and I think the biggest barrier to enrollment is time. You have to come for your screening visit and then, you know, every other week for four visits and then twice a year after that. But for a lot of people, you know, time is a really precious commodity. So, um, that can be challenging to do. But I think most people are really intrigued and don’t really perceive there to be a lot of downside. They, probably the more common thing is why aren’t you enrolling Border Collies or, you know, whatever breed they have that isn’t, you know, part of this study.
[00:36:55] >> James Jacobson: Wow. Well, it is a moonshot, but has amazing potential, if it works out and it’s profound, if there’s something there and I wish you guys the best, and I’m really excited to have you share this with us and we will be certainly following future developments.
[00:37:13] >> Dr. Jenna Burton: We will be keeping you posted. We’re all excited about this project. But I really appreciate the time to chat with you and talk about the study. It’s been really an exciting project to be involved in, so.
[00:37:23] >> James Jacobson: Thank you, Dr. Jenna Burton.
Imagine being able to get a shot, or several shots, and prevent cancer from happening in dogs and people. It’s pretty cool. Now it is a moonshot. I think, you know, the odds of it working out exactly as they have hoped, maybe not so great, but this is all part of the scientific method. And I am so excited that this type of research is going on and that the 800 dog lovers – and if you want to be one of those, we will put a link in the today’s show notes so you can enroll in the study or see if your dog can enroll in the study – could potentially pave the way for a vaccine that could both benefit people and dogs in the future.
Speaking of people and dogs, we here at Dog Cancer Answers would love to hear what you think about the show and if you have some ideas for future episodes, please let us know. You can reach us on our website at dogcanceranswers.com. Also, if you enjoyed today’s episode, please do us a favor and consider telling a friend or two or three or four or your veterinarian and let people know about the show. It really helps us grow and reach more people who are in need of answers to dog cancer.
Well, that is it for today’s episode. I want to thank you for joining us. From all of us here at Dog Podcast Network, I’m James Jacobson, wishing you and your dog, a very warm Aloha.
[00:38:57] >> Announcer: Thank you for listening to Dog Cancer Answers. If you’d like to connect, please visit our website at dogcanceranswers.com, or call our Listener Line at (808) 868-3200. And here’s a friendly reminder that you probably already know: this podcast is provided for informational and educational purposes only. It’s not meant to take the place of the advice you receive from your dog’s veterinarian.
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Dog Cancer Answers is a presentation of Maui Media in association with Dog Podcast Network.