ASU Professor Working on Vaccine for Canine Cancer

Jan 22, 2018

Cancer is a disease that touches almost everyone to some degree, even dogs. In fact, some breeds have cancer rates as high as 40%. It's something Stephen Johnston is trying to prevent. He's a Professor at Arizona State University who's been given a grant of more than $6 million to test a possible vaccine for all types of canine cancer. And if it works, it could one day be used on humans. Dr. Johnston spoke to KNAU's Justin Regan recently about the vaccine trial.  

Credit ASU

Justin Regan: I’m going to assume you’re a dog lover. Is that true?

Stephen Johnston: I am but my wife’s allergic, so I don’t have one. I always had one when I was a kid. This is my outlet here.

JR: Why dogs? Why work on a cancer vaccine for dogs?

SJ: The concept of having a preventative cancer vaccine, one that you would take and not get cancer, was such a far out idea it was very difficult to get people interested in funding such a clinical trial in people. So we turned to dogs first. The clinical trials are far less expensive to do. They are shorter because dogs get cancer more frequently. They do get it at the same rate, but the time course for cancer is much shorter for a dog then a person. And frankly, vets and dog owners were much more willing to give this a try then oncologists and cancer researchers at the NIH.

JR: Why are cancer rates so high for some breeds of dogs?

SJ: That’s not clear. There’s a relationship between just the size of the dog and the cancer incidents, but there’s more going on than that. In some cases they’ve determined there’s a particular genetic propensity in some breeds to have cancer. In fact, particular kinds of cancer. Most cancer discovered in dogs is late stage. They don’t have regular screening technologies for colon cancer and breast cancer and prostate. And it’s probably also because dogs don’t complain. They’re usually discovered to have cancer because they have some extreme sort of manifestation of it at a late stage.

JR: There are so many different types of cancer. How might this vaccine work to cure all of them?

SJ: So most of the people that are developing vaccines out there right now are looking at the DNA in tumors. And when you look at the DNA, every mutation that a tumor has is personal. So if you see the sequence of the DNA of one person’s tumor and the DNA of another person’s tumor, or even the same kind of tumor in two different people you’ll find that they have almost no mutations in common between those two tumors. What we’ve found out is that basically people were looking under the wrong lamppost. If you don’t look at the DNA but you look at the RNA you find that two tumors that are in two different people and even different kinds of tumors can have common mutations in them. And those common mutations if you find enough of them, in our case we’re going to have about 30 of them in our vaccine, you’ll be able to cover almost any kind of cancer a dog or person would develop.  

JR: What got you into this line of work?

SJ: Well, I’m an inventor. So I just look for areas that are in need of an invention that can have a high impact. What we try to do is invent things in biomedicine that not only are more effective but also less expensive. Most of the people who get cancer in the world do not live in developed countries. So this vaccine could be as inexpensive as a typical infectious disease vaccine that people would get.