MRC Human Genetics Unit
Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit

Canine oral cancer study aims to find new treatments

Understanding of canine melanoma could pave the way for personalised medicine and create biobank for drug screening: December 2021

Canine oral cancer study (scientist sitting next to a microscope)

Despite the important progress in skin melanoma over the past 15 years, patients with oral melanoma have few therapeutic options. It is hoped that this research in dogs will provide clues to how this disease can be treated in humans.

Through work funded by the UK Kennel Club Charitable Trust (KCCT), researchers are seeking to identify drugs to prevent the progressive spread of a type of oral cancer in dogs.

A search for new treatments could improve outcomes in oral malignant melanoma, the most common type of mouth cancer affecting dogs.

In a unique collaboration between the Hospital for Small Animals, the Roslin Institute and the MRC Human Genetics Unit, scientists will examine samples of naturally occurring cancerous tissue from laboratories around the world to identify biological markers which show whether the cancer is likely to spread.

The team will also develop samples of tissue in the laboratory, grown from diseased cells, with which to test drugs.

Researchers hope their insights will pave the way towards personalised, precision canine medicine.

Their project follows previous research identifying key genes linked to tumours that are likely to spread.

Researchers will now seek to further investigate these genes and their activity linked to the spread of cancer.

Using samples from tissue banks in the UK, Europe and US, the team aims to identify sub-types of melanoma, characterised by differences in their gene activity. They will link these findings to disease progression and patient outcomes.

Scientists will aim to uncover the biological processes behind the development of disease sub-types, and determine drugs that might target these pathways to prevent cancer spread.

Researchers will grow samples of cancerous tissue in the lab to develop miniature organs, known as organoids, as models of disease by on which to test potential drug treatments.

The team aims to develop a living biobank of organoids derived from dog tissue, as a platform for screening drugs to prevent cancer spread.

The findings could reveal sub-types of cancer and tailored treatments for each, improving on current generic treatments and leading to better outcomes for patients. Researchers aim to develop their findings into drug trials involving patients being treated at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

There is much to discover about the development of canine oral melanoma, for example how it may differ between breeds, its impact on various tissues or location within the mouth. Identifying sub-types of this disease can help to inform our understanding how spread progresses, so that more effective potential drug targets, tailored to a sub-type, if necessary, can be identified.

Dr Kelly BlacklockSenior Lecturer, Small Animal Soft Tissue Surgery

Given the shared genetics between humans and canines, we expect that some of what we learn from these dogs will lay a foundation for studying the disease in humans. Understanding the genomes of oral melanoma in dogs is critical to understand the disease in humans. This is a powerful cross-species approach - and a unique collaboration between the MRC Human Genetics Unit and the University of Edinburgh’s Vet School - that opens new doors for therapies in both canine and human oral melanoma patients.

Professor Liz PattonChair of Chemical Genetics, MRC Human Genetics Unit