A Lab Dog's Painful Life: Thousands of Man's Best Friends Are Still Used for Testing

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Compared with monkeys, hardly any dogs are used at Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center. Since 2010, the institution has registered the use of only 34 dogs with the USDA. But the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering have granted more than $2 million to MD Anderson for studies that include dogs.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to find out the extent of these studies since an MD Anderson spokeswoman told us in an email, "I've not been able to find someone here who is interested in participating in the story."

But generally, scientists consider dogs especially well-suited for cancer research. Like humans, dogs suffer spontaneous lung cancer, and tumors can spread the same way in both species. According to the National Cancer Institute, dogs and humans have similar immune systems, making dogs a good model for cancer immunotherapies. The NCI also states that dogs' size is especially suitable for collecting samples and performing surgery.

According to an NIH database, the dog-involved work being done at MD Anderson includes a study on the use of a drug called bleomycin in the treatment of squamous cell carcinoma — a cancer of the mouth, head and neck that is the fourth-most common type of malignancy in males. Bleomycin is already used in the treatment of Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The study was proposed in 2010, at which time bleomycin had already yielded positive results in mice, and preliminary studies using two dogs look promising, according to the project's leader.

Moreover, since the lab already has an animal cancer treatment unit, researchers could "recruit client-owned dogs."

An article resulting from the study, published in the March 2015 issue of the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, noted the safety and efficacy of the treatment on 13 dogs and emphasized that "not a single adverse event was noted even in animals receiving the highest doses ... over multiple treatment cycles."

Like MD Anderson, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston is tight-lipped about its research with dogs.

"There is no one here interested in participating in that story," spokeswoman Deborah Mann Lake told the Houston Press.

According to USDA records, the institution has conducted studies on 59 dogs since 2010. But the Houston Press was unable to find corresponding data on the National Institutes of Health's online grant database, suggesting that, whatever UT-Health Science Center was doing with its dogs, it wasn't federally funded.

Meanwhile, the Texas Heart Institute has stopped using dogs altogether. This, despite the fact that the NIH says that dogs are great models for heart research because the canine cardiovascular system is similar "in both size and function" to people's. (Larger dogs, with deeper chest cavities and large hearts, have made especially good candidates in the development of both surgical techniques and the implantation of devices like pacemakers, according to the NIH.)

"A management decision was made in early 2012 to permanently eliminate the use of dogs in research," THI spokesman Frank Michel said. At the time the decision was made, one three-year study was already in place.

"The hearts of these animals were used in the study of the molecular and chemical causes of atrial fibrillation (AFIB), which is linked in humans to sudden cardiac arrest and strokes," Michel explained in an email. "The study was aimed at preventing AFIB, an abnormal rhythm of the heart characterized by rapid and irregular heartbeats." (Michel noted that the dogs in that study came from a Class A dealer.)

Michel also explained that the Texas Heart Institute decided to stop using dogs for two reasons: "We understand the societal sentiments about it and wanted to be responsive to [those] sensitivities, and ... the canine physiology is not the best match for the types of research underway now at THI." (USDA records indicate the institute primarily uses sheep and pigs for its studies.)

While some studies may seem benign, others include detailed descriptions of how a dog is actually injured for the purpose of research.

At Texas A&M, for instance, a lot of research is being done on Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which affects approximately one out of every 3,500-7,500 males. In this condition, the absence of a protein called dystrophin causes the deterioration of skeletal and cardiac muscle.

The work is led by nationally renowned researcher Joe Kornegay, who maintains a colony of golden retrievers afflicted with Duchenne. A 2012 journal article discussing these studies states that, unlike mice, golden retrievers afflicted with Duchenne "develop progressive, fatal disease strikingly similar to the human condition."

The article explains that, to measure muscle degeneration, a dog's ankle joint was extended by using a tiny motor called a servomotor, which is attached to a lever. Then the muscles "are repeatedly stretched to induce mechanical damage." Dogs were subjected to "three sets of ten stretches," with a 5-second rest between stretches and a 4-minute rest between sets.

At Houston's Nanospectra Biosciences, founded in 2002, researchers have licensed nanoshell technology developed at Rice University. The idea works like this: Nanoshells, tiny gold-plated particles, are injected intravenously into a cancer patient, with the nanoshells — or AuroShells, as Nanospectra calls them — bonding to the tumor. The target area is then lit up with a "near-infrared laser," according to the company's website. "The AuroShell particles are specifically designed to absorb this wavelength and convert the laser light into heat." This obliterates the tumor, while not harming the surrounding tissue.

The toxicity was tested using 36 beagles, according to a 2012 article in the International Journal of Toxicity that concluded that the nanoshell particles "are not associated with any toxic effects."

The lack of toxicity means the particles can be used to treat cancer in dogs as well as humans. Nanospectra CEO David Jorden told the Houston Press in an email that the company has treated 18 dogs in pilot studies that began in 2014. Two more dogs are scheduled for cancer treatment — one at A&M and the other at Virginia Tech.

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