ASU Biodesign Institute unveils cancer study on canines

The study could pave the way toward a preventative cancer vaccine for your pup

A cancer vaccine for dogs may give Arizona State University’s reputation for innovation a new meaning.

Open Philanthropy Project, an independent organization that identifies research opportunities and provides grants for them, presented the University with over $6.4 million to test a vaccine that could potentially prevent all cancers in canines, according to Michael Levine, the organization's communications officer. 

The vaccine, a multi-valent frameshift peptide (FSP), was created by Stephen Albert Johnston of the ASU Biodesign Institute’s Center for Innovations in Medicine. 

“(The vaccine) is an invention I had about 10 years ago, and we’ve been working on it hard ever since trying to see if it really works and get it tested,” Johnston says. “To finally initiate a trial to see if we have done good over 10 years is very exciting.”


Johnston says he found the vaccine effective in mice and now wants to discover how effective it is in dogs. 

The trial will be the largest interventional canine clinical trial ever conducted with at least 800 dogs enrolled in the study, Johnston says. 

While the study is directed by ASU, clinical trials will take place in three cities across the country including Fort Collins, Colorado, Madison, Wisconsin and Davis, California. Owners living within 25 miles of these research centers will be able to enroll their dogs in the tests. 

Several scientists are involved in this project with three principal investigators at the three cancer institutes nationwide, each with their own trial coordinator and oncology support group.

Five members of the team who work from the ASU center will perform various medical tasks such as creating the vaccine, Johnston says. 

Johnston says the trial will take up to five years to complete. During that time, the dogs will be initially screened for cancer. Those that appear not to have it will be split into two groups randomly and given either the real or placebo vaccine. They will then be monitored for cancer every six months for the duration of the study. 

While the team faced difficulties in trying to get people interested in testing the vaccine in humans, Johnston says he suggested dogs as the testing pathway is simpler and more cost effective. 

Johnston says the benefits of testing the vaccine in dogs first is that they have cancer at essentially the same rate as humans, and their life expectancy is compressed by about six-fold. 

“If it’s successful, and we make a significant impact on preventing cancer in dogs, hopefully it (FSP) will become a product we can market for a dog vaccine,” Johnston says. “We will also use that data to support starting a trial in people for that preventative vaccine.”

Johnston says FSP could potentially cause positive and/or negative side effects. It may cause tenderness, as most vaccines do, at the time of injection. He says there is also a possibility of it causing an autoimmune response or making a tumor worse. The team will carefully monitor for these effects, although they were not seen in the mouse studies, Johnston says. 

There is the potential the vaccine may cause positive side effects such as protection against other diseases, according to Johnston. 

"Owners will regularly fill out questionnaires, which could detect other possible outcomes," Johnston says.

This trial could be very important for the Biodesign Institute, as the Institute is supposed to be the University's flagship for transformative biomedical research that has potentially high impact, according to Johnston.

Although he says there may be a low chance the vaccine will be successful, he believes it should be tried.


“When you think of ASU, you don’t usually think of medicine,” Martin Caudillo, a freshman health sciences major, says. “We are number one in innovation, and I think it’s cool that ASU is expanding and has a professor willing to do this for animals.”

Caudillo recently lost his dog Angel to cancer only one month after doctors found a tumor on her side. 

He says Angel quickly became his best friend after he found her as a stray at a park when he was in kindergarten. Caudillo brought the Chihuahua-Terrier mix home and used to play dinosaurs with her, in which she was the “big dinosaur.”

“My emotions were all over the place,” Caudillo says. “We took her to the vet right away but didn’t put her through treatment because I didn’t want her to go through that. She was already suffering, and I felt so bad.”

Caudillo says dogs play a large role in the lives of humans because they understand and reflect what a person does and how they feel. 

He says it is exciting that a vaccine to prevent cancers in canines is being tested and wishes it was already here. 

“I think this trial can be scary but a good thing, too,” Caudillo says. “I think a lot of people don’t like testing on animals. I’m against that to a certain extent, but in this case, I think the doctors should do so.”

Johnston noted that one of the criteria he wanted the vaccine to meet was that it had to be cost effective. Most cancers, whether in dogs or humans, are often difficult to treat simply due to how expensive the treatments are.

“Whatever we invented had to be available to everybody that gets cancer, not just the people that can afford very expensive treatment,” Johnston says.

Although he says most people within the cancer research and clinical fields do not think it will work, he wants to try it and know if it will fail.

“I could possibly be a small piece in a project that significantly impacts the world if it works,” says Pattie Madjidi, business operations manager of the Biodesign Institute. 

Madjidi says she is responsible for the project’s funds and expenditures. She has been with the University’s Biodesign Institute for about 12 years and says this project is interesting as it could add to ASU’s compendium of research projects and accomplishments. 

“The most intriguing for me is the translation from canines to humans -- that possibility,” Madjidi says. “It’s great that we’re working with dogs, but our real focus is cancer in humans. The dogs are a stepping stone to get there."


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