The veterinary cancer market has historically lagged behind the human market. Until recently, for example, almost all the drugs used for canine cancers were those approved for use in human patients. At the moment, there are only four dog-specific cancer drugs approved or conditionally approved, and several others in development. Interestingly, however, the animal cancer market has begun to influence the human cancer market, instead of the other way round.
HOW DO THE VETERINARY AND HUMAN CANCER MARKETS DIFFER?
Access to treatment
Cancer is, unfortunately, a common disease; in the U.S. alone, 1.8 million people are diagnosed with cancer every year. It is even more prevalent among our furry companions.1 Twelve million pets are diagnosed with cancer each year — about six million dogs and six million cats.2 While cancer is a serious diagnosis for people, we have more access to treatment than our dogs and cats do; there are more hospitals and oncologists, and insurance covers more treatments for humans.
While the animal cancer market is growing rapidly, there are a limited number of doctors and treatments for the much larger number of patients. As of 2020, there were only 462 pet oncologists in the U.S. and around 250 specialty hospitals for animals.3 Although the number of animal owners purchasing pet insurance increases annually, people still tend to pay out of pocket for treatments.
The regulatory situation is also different for the veterinary cancer market than it is for humans.4 Although the FDA regulates drugs for animals through its veterinary arm, the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), it doesn’t regulate vaccines for animal diseases. Veterinary biologics, including animal vaccines, are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Human medical devices always require the FDA’s approval, but animal devices do not have to be approved by FDA to go to market. However, the FDA monitors and regulates misbranded or misused devices. Reference lab services for animals that involve sending and receiving clinical sample collection kits, and require patient information from veterinary clinics, are considered animal devices, and therefore bypass FDA or USDA regulatory pathways. Also, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) don’t apply to animals.
In general, this implies that veterinary researchers can move more quickly with a larger patient population and shared data than their human medical counterparts, who need to move through layers of regulation to obtain FDA approval for medical products. This speed in veterinary oncology research can benefit both veterinary science and human cancer research.
WHAT IS COMPARATIVE ONCOLOGY AND HOW CAN IT HELP BOTH DOGS AND PEOPLE?
There has long been a relationship between researchers studying animal cancer and those studying human cancer. Comparative oncology is the study of naturally-occurring cancer in animals and how it compares to humans, so that treatments and cures that benefit both can be developed. The National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research has been running the Comparative Oncology Program since 2003.5
Take the example of a dog who gets sick with cancer. The dog is similar to his human owner in many ways — he lives in the same home and is exposed to the same carcinogens. The cancers that affect dogs are the exact same ones people get, and for good reason; dogs share more than 80% of our genome (cats share 90%). But there is also a striking difference in the way dogs get sick with cancer; their cancers progress much more quickly, for example. On the positive side, dogs are much more tolerant of the toxicity of chemotherapy treatments than humans are; most breeds don’t lose their hair and they don’t get as sick with other side effect as humans do. Most importantly, dogs tend to respond quickly when they’re given treatments that work for them.
A dog’s fast response to chemotherapy is great for the patient, and also beneficial for researchers in the field of comparative oncology.
As mentioned above, animal patient data is not regulated by HIPAA’s privacy rules. Therefore, an extensive amount of data can be collected under a consent form signed by the owners. As a result, the data from veterinary patients can be used to inform human cancer treatments. In addition to the less restrictive regulations around veterinary oncology, the significantly accelerated speed of collecting drug responses is something both veterinary researchers and their human counterparts can benefit from.
In many ways, veterinary patient data can be more helpful to a researcher than drug trials on a lab mouse. Laboratory animals are born and live in specific conditions — their immune systems are artificially suppressed, and human cancer cells are injected into an easily measurable site rather than the tissue the cancer cells originated from.
Conversely, data from the treatment of dogs with cancer is invaluable to improving human cancer care because dogs live with humans at home, their cancers are naturally-occurring, the treatment courses are relatively short, and they’re living their natural lives — they aren’t test subjects in labs.
Comparative oncology is a boon for both human and animal medicine — dogs and humans will eventually develop drug resistance to chemotherapies, so the more drugs on the market for both groups, the better. By working together, researchers can make use of drugs like Tanovea (see sidebar above) that don’t work well for humans but work for animals, and vice versa.
1Cancer statistics. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics#:~:text=Statistics%20at%20a%20Glance%3A%20The,will%20die%20from%20the%20disease. Accessed October 13, 2021.
2Quick pet cancer facts and questions. Facts. https://fetchacure.org/resource-library/facts/. Published November 29, 2017. Accessed October 13, 2021.
3Veterinary specialists 2020. American Veterinary Medical Association. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/reports-statistics/veterinary-specialists-2020. Accessed October 13, 2021.
4What FDA does and does not regulate. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/what-fda-does-and-does-not-regulate. Accessed October 13, 2021.
5Comparative oncology program | center for cancer research. Comparative Oncology Program. https://ccr.cancer.gov/comparative-oncology-program. Accessed October 13, 2021.
6Dunn L. Genetic similarities between dogs and people are helping cancer research. NBC. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/cancer/genetic-similarities-between-dogs-people-are-helping-cancer-research-n841556. Published February 10, 2018.
7Guiden M. Awareness builds for what we can learn by studying animal cancers. Source.. https://source.colostate.edu/awareness-builds-for-what-we-can-learn-by-studying-animal-cancers/. Published July 27, 2017. Accessed October 13, 2021.
8Guiden, M. CSU veterinarians help bring groundbreaking cancer drug to market. Source. https://source.colostate.edu/colorado-state-university-veterinarians-help-bring-groundbreaking-cancer-drug-market/. Published January 4 2017. Accessed October 13 2021.