Groundbreaking UC Davis dog cancer trial provides promising link for humans

SACRAMENTO — Could man’s best friend finally help find a cure for cancer? UC Davis researchers think so.

Human Physicians have tied hands with Animal Physicians, hoping that their groundbreaking study of a new cancer treatment in dogs will one day save people’s lives.

It stems from a unique collaboration in comparative oncology between researchers at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center and the UC Davis Veterinary Medicine Center for Companion Animal Health.

Thanks to cutting-edge research, a local dog’s success could mean so much more in the fight for a cure.

The 9-year-old bullmastiff and pitbull mix named Tyson lives with his loving family in Elk Grove after being rescued as a puppy from the Sacramento SPCA.

The dog is defying the odds after doctors said he wouldn’t live more than a year – he was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2021.

“My daughter thinks he’s her brother. He’s not just a dog, he’s literally a family. I was desperate to try to save his life,” said Brianna Fizulic, the owner of Tyson.

A leg amputation and chemotherapy were needed as the bone cancer was taking its toll. Tyson now moves on three legs instead of four. But what made all the difference for Tyson was a cancer treatment clinical trial at UC Davis.

“It might save his life, right? Like, there’s no other option,” Fizulic said of his decision to put Tyson on trial.

The dog took two weeks of immunotherapy and advanced breathing treatments that brought Tyson back to wagging and belly rubs.

“We’ve been here, September, a year, and we’re still going strong, thankfully,” Fizulic said.

Breakthroughs in the treatment of canine cancer give doctors hope that one day this therapy will save people’s lives.

“The cancer that dogs develop is incredibly similar to that of humans,” said Dr. Robert Canter, surgical oncologist at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center and leader of the research trial.

Immunotherapy is inhaled through a respiratory system, giving the body a large dose of a molecule that helps the immune system attack cancer.

“Immunotherapy has really been a breakthrough, almost a revolution in cancer treatment,” Canter said.

It could one day replace highly invasive chemotherapy as a much more tolerable option and perhaps the new normal. But until then, it starts with dogs like Tyson leading the way through trial and error.

“We can learn more quickly what works, what may not work,” Canter said.

“And then taking that information and applying it to human clinical trials,” said Michael Kent, director of the Center for Companion Animal Health at UC Davis.

Canter says that 40% of the 21 dogs in the multi-year trial saw their cancer stop progressing or disappear completely. Canter calls those numbers promising, but says there’s still work to be done.

As with any cancer patient, even in remission, Tyson’s days could be numbered.

“I remain hopeful,” Fizulic said. “It’s not just about him. It’s about the future.”

Man’s best friend, quite possibly the best chance of curing cancer.

“Everyone has one goal in mind: to end cancer,” Kent said.

The work is just beginning. The goal is to start a similar clinical trial in humans within a year.

The findings published by UC Davis surgical oncologist Dr. Robert Canter and veterinary oncologist Dr. Robert Rebhun can be read in full here.