A program at the School of Veterinary Medicine provides free surgery and follow-up care to shelter dogs with mammary tumors and matches them with willing owners, while also collecting data that could advance treatment of human breast cancers.
BY KATHRYN LEVY FELDMAN
“She looked like she needed someone to love her,” recalls Mildred Edmond of the first time she saw Cali’s picture on the website of the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, SPCA. Edmond already had two dogs—an eight-year-old cock-a-poo and a four-year-old poodle—but like many pet owners her heart is bigger than her house, and she spent a fair amount of time scrolling through the site’s list of adoptable dogs. That’s what she was doing on the Friday after Thanksgiving 2009, when the image of the six-year-old bichon frise caught her eye.
Edmond persuaded her husband to “take a ride, just to look at her,” and both were smitten, even after learning about the dog’s medical condition. “They told us she had several mammary tumors that would require surgery,” Edmond explains. Fortunately, the couple was also told about an innovative program at the School of Veterinary Medicine that would provide the surgery to remove her tumors and follow-up care free of charge. Today Cali, minus her 11 tumors (only one of which was “suspicious”), is one of 17 dogs enrolled in the Penn Vet Shelter Canine Mammary Tumor Program. “We would have adopted her, anyway,” says Edmond, herself a survivor of breast and oral cancer. “We knew there were no guarantees about the outcome, but Cali had been neglected. We wanted to make her life comfortable.”
The canine mammary tumor program is the brainchild of Karin Sorenmo, chief of medical oncology at the School of Veterinary Medicine, and is designed to provide care for shelter dogs while advancing knowledge about both canine and human breast cancer. “Human breast cancer and mammary tumors in dogs share many similarities in terms of risk factors, biology, and hormone dependence,” Sorenmo explains. “We believe that by studying dogs with mammary tumors we can improve our understanding of how cancer develops, and through this understanding find better and more efficient drugs to treat as well as prevent cancer.”
Representing the human-medicine side of this collaboration are Robert Vonderheide and Susan Domchek M’05, associate professors and oncologists at the Abramson Cancer Center (as well as husband and wife). Vonderheide, who has been working with Sorenmo for the past six years on the development of a vaccine for lymphoma, calls the venture “an example of the great things that can happen when the School of Medicine works with the vet school—it is after all, ‘many species, one medicine,’” in the words of the school’s motto.
“There are enough similarities between the species to make the findings relevant,” concurs Domchek, whose specialty is breast cancer. “Understanding the risk factors in dogs helps us understand the risk factors in people.”
Comparative oncology, a field that integrates the study of naturally occurring cancers in (predominantly companion) animals and research on human cancer biology and therapy, has been around for about 30 years. But the Penn program offers what Sorenmo calls “a double reward,” in that knowledge that could advance the understanding and treatment of human cancer is attained not only without harming animals, but by actually saving the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of animal shelter populations. (And, if you ask the grateful owners who have adopted some of these survivors, they would tell you that it’s actually a triple reward.)
Above: Mildred Edmond and Cali, a participant in the canine mammary tumor program, with another of Edmond’s three dogs.
Download this article (PDF)
FEATURE: A Double Reward by Kathryn Levy Feldman
Photography by Candace diCarlo
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette