Sorenmo encountered her other collaborator in the mammary tumor program, Olga Troyanskaya, when the Russian-born scientist and dog lover sought her out for advice about treatment for her dog Jessy. Two years ago, her local vet gave the then 13-year-old German shepherd one week to live. Troyanskaya, who is primary investigator at the Princeton University Laboratory for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics, tracked down Sorenmo at Penn and talked her way into an immediate consultation. Sorenmo recommended a chemotherapy protocol, which extended Jessy’s life for six months. In the end, Jessy died from kidney failure, not cancer, and Troyanskaya is grateful for the additional time she got to spend with her beloved pet. “She went from looking like a dog who was going to die to a dog who lived a good quality of life for six months,” she says.

It was during those six months of weekly trips to Penn that the two professors began to talk about their respective research. “Somehow the topic came up that I did micro-analysis, and we just took it from there,” Troyanskaya recalls. Sorenmo, whose interest in breast cancer is personal as well as professional (her mother died of the disease), knew she had found an essential partner in her project.

In her lab at Princeton, Troyanskaya analyzes the molecular composition of the tumor cells removed from the dogs—in particular, the proteins produced by genes as tumors move from pre-malignant to malignant. “Are there any particular groups of genes that seem to be predictable? Why is it that some groupings become malignant and some don’t?” she says.

Sorenmo calls Troyanskaya a “superstar,” with a track record of being able to find trends in massive amounts of data. Adds Vonderheide, “If anyone can find the needle in the haystack of which gene is changing, she can.”

To date, Troyanskaya has tumor profiles from enough dogs to dub the findings “very promising.”

“We are able to measure gene expression in dogs and identify genes that are different between normal and tumor cells. We have enough to feel like the signal is there,” she elaborates. “The fact that dogs get multiple mammary tumors at the same time makes their genes more similar to those in people than those in mice. We can find groups of genes that are unique to tumors, which is especially exciting because Dog A is just about as different from Dog B as I am from you.”

At this point, 17 dogs are enrolled in the study. Two dogs have died, one from cancer and one from unrelated causes. One of the two, Randi, was adopted by Jennifer Wolf despite the advanced stage of her disease. “All I wanted was for her to be in a home, loved and cared for,” she says. “The fact that she had cancer made no difference. She, like all shelter dogs, didn’t deserve to spend the rest of her life sitting in a shelter.”

Jenys Allende, another adoptive owner of a dog enrolled in the program, offers similar sentiments. Allende, a practicing psychiatrist, was already infatuated with Roxy, a cocker spaniel, when she learned the dog had multiple mammary tumors. “We thought she had one or maybe two tumors, but it turned out she had a tumor on almost every mammary gland,” she says. “By this point, I knew she was the perfect dog for me, and I wasn’t going to give her back.” For Allende, everything turned out well. Roxy’s biopsies indicated there was no invasive form of cancer. If the situation changes, Allende “will deal with it,” she says.

Roxy, like all the dogs in the study, returns to the Ryan Veterinary Hospital for check-ups every four to six months. Most dogs will live two to three years, she estimates, though some will survive longer and others may not make it through the first year. The uncertainty does not seem to faze the owners of the dogs who have been given a second chance. “People have big hearts when it comes to dogs,” says Sorenmo. “If the cancer does reoccur, we can give them options for treatment, although the cost for that would not be covered under the study.”

One of Sorenmo’s longtime goals is to match dogs in the program with more breast cancer survivors like Mildred Edmond. “We know they would be especially vigilant about bringing them back for checkups,” she reasons. “Plus it is a very tangible way for them to contribute to groundbreaking research.”

Edmond couldn’t agree more. “I feel a special bond with Cali probably because I’m a breast cancer survivor myself,” she admits. “Maybe we’ll get a cure for everything.”

Kathryn Levy Feldman LPS’09 wrote about Penn’s master’s degree program in applied positive psychology in the May|June 2010 issue.

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