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As director of the Animal Cancer Care and Research program at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Jaime Modiano is at the forefront of groundbreaking research that's improving the health of both dogs and people. He joined the College of Veterinary Medicine in 2007 as the Alvin S. and June Perlman Professor of Veterinary Oncology and Comparative Medicine, and says one of the greatest joys of having an endowed position is that it allows him the time and freedom to mentor "brilliant young people starting out their careers."
Perhaps the best-known example is the work of his colleagues Dr. John Ohlfest, a fellow researcher with the Masonic Cancer Center who died in January at age 35 after a battle with malignant melanoma, and Dr. Elizabeth Pluhar, a veterinary surgeon at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Their work developing a combination of immunotherapy and surgery to treat brain cancer in dogs was so promising that it received accelerated approval from the Food and Drug Administration for testing in human patients. The first human patient began treatment in November.
Tell us more about the brain-cancer research.
In brain cancer, there are no good treatments. They drill into your head, or they give you radiation and make you terribly sick. John and Liz felt there had to be a better way.
The program has treated over 100 dogs, and the success they've seen is better than anyone else has reported. Their dog studies were essential to convince the FDA that this merited expedited approval. Could they have done it without the dogs? Maybe. Would it have taken a lot longer? Certainly. Would we be seeing human patients treated today? Probably not.
And it was not that they were using the dogs as laboratory animals. They were able to help dogs with a disease that was going to kill them.
How similar are the cancers of dogs and people?
The way brewer's yeast makes two cells and the way humans make two cells is essentially the same. Over eons of evolution, that has not changed. If you limit your genetic analysis to that, there is very little difference between yeast, earthworms, dogs, and humans. Abnormalities in those genes are going to have the same consequence in dogs and humans and anything else. The estimate is that much like in people, maybe half or a third of dogs will develop cancer in their lifetime.
Every year that passes, your risk of cancer increases because cancer risk is associated with cell divisions. The longer you live, the more cell divisions you have, so it's a simple numbers game. Because we have controlled or eradicated a lot of things that used to kill people and dogs at younger ages, it's natural that we're going to see increased risk for things that happen with age.
What's the advantage of studying cancer in dogs and then applying those findings to people?
We study cancer in dogs because we're veterinarians. We want to improve the quality of life of dogs. That being said, we need to look at how anything we do has the potential to improve human health.
We have made some terrific advances in bone cancer, partly by studying the disease in dogs and restricting the dog breeds we were looking at. Breeds are closed systems. Two golden retrievers are much more similar to each other than any two humans are. You can then make comparisons between these populations and filter out a lot of the "noise" of the genetic system.
By studying the disease in dogs, we found a way to distinguish which bone tumors will behave very aggressively and which will behave less aggressively. That allows us to figure out how intensely to treat these tumors, and is something that people had not been able to find when looking at tumors in kids, despite significant effort.
Let's say you have a 12-year-old boy diagnosed with bone cancer. That boy has a whole life ahead of him. You don't want to give him any less therapy than he needs to cure him, and you don't want to give him too much therapy, or he'll get horribly sick.
The course of the disease in dogs is two years. The course of the disease in kids is 20 years. Trying to figure out if your prediction was right in kids is going to take a really long time. We can test that prediction in dogs and two years down the road, we'll see how successful we are.
Are there diseases besides cancer you're studying in both dogs and humans?
We've been looking at immune-mediated diseases, and we've been just scratching the surface looking at inflammatory bowel disease and diabetes. We might be able to do things with stem cells and regenerative medicine—anything from fixing hearts and livers to making arthritis pain go away.
Looking at other research institutions doing similar work, what makes the U stand out?
There are four schools that have a comprehensive cancer center and a vet center on the same campus, but we're only ones with a program that's fully integrated. The Masonic Cancer Center made the commitment to co-house the program, pay for the program, and make the program part of their core mission. The two entities are working together as one. It's not a marriage of convenience; it's a marriage of mission.
What do you do for fun?
I love my work, so for me, working is fun. But outside of work, my passion is the environment and the outdoors. I used to be a mountain climber, which I don't do anymore. As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate the advantages of staying in a nice inn with a hot shower.
My wife and I cross-country ski and snowshoe in winter, and in summer we cycle. Every summer we try to go up to the woods. We take the dogs and do long hikes every day. We have a German shepherd named Quetzal who's 7, and a Gordon setter, Dashiell, who's 9 months old.