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What Animals Teach Us About Cancer

What Animals Teach Us About Cancer
(Copyright DPC)

By    |   Thursday, 23 June 2016 04:05 PM

Immunotherapy is making headlines as a cancer breakthrough but this comes as no surprise to a top expert because he realized its potential by observing how the immune system affects the disease in animals.

“The way in which cancer develops in animals provides us with many clues which scientists are only just recognizing. But by realizing this, it could help lead us to a cure," says Dr. James S. Welsh, a nationally known cancer expert.
He is the author of the new book “Sharks Get Cancer: Mole Rats Don’t." In the book, he explores the similarities between cancer that occurs in animals and humans.  

A main thread that runs through the book is the connection between cancer and the immune system, Welsh says.

“Normally, our immune system is programmed to fight off invaders, like cancer cells. But cancer is able to trick the immune system and remain invisible. This happens in animals and also in people as well,” says Welsh, who is president of the American College of Radiation Oncology and a professor at Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Ill.

"One of the jobs of the immune system is to identify invaders of the body, such as bacteria, and eradicate them. But when it comes to cancer, the disease has figured out a way to make itself invisible to the immune system,” notes Welsh.

Immunotherapy boosts the body’s immune system, enabling it to recognize and kill cancer cells in a more targeted way than chemotherapy. This type of treatment is credited with saving former President Jimmy Carter from metastatic melanoma. The Food and Drug Administration also recently approved immunotherapy drugs for lung and bladder cancer, and others are in the research pipeline as well.   

The common denominator of all types of cancer is that, somehow, they are able to hide from the immune system. But this is cancer’s Achilles’ heel, and it is this weakness that could finally lead us to a cure, says Welsh.   

Here are some of the clues that he has learned, and how he believes they can help us understand how to target cancer. 

All animals can get cancer – sharks included. “There was a myth that sharks don’t get cancer, but they do.  In fact, when I was a student, this story was being promulgated, and I thought I had better look into it, because if it was true, I figured I’d better get a new career. It turns out that sharks – like other animals – do get cancer, although less often than do people.  Mole rats do as well, although this is very, very rare."

Cancer is not caused by our modern lifestyle. “Cancer is a fact of nature. Dinosaurs got it.  Fifty percent of dogs will get it if they live long enough. Clams get cancer, even tapeworms get cancer, and they can spread it to their human hosts. Even plants can get cancer, but their rigid cell walls prevent it from spreading."

Mighty Mouse exists. Although mice are not immune to cancer, there is a strain that is, because it kills the cancer through the response of its immune system. "An experiment was performed where the blood from this ‘Mighty Mouse’ was transfused into a mouse dying of cancer and the mouse was cured. This makes me wonder if there is a Mighty Man or Mighty Woman somewhere as well."

Cancer can be contagious.  “Science teaches us that cancer isn’t contagious, but this isn’t true in the animal kingdom. There is a type of facial cancer that is destroying the Tasmanian devil population, which is spread from one to another through biting.  Dogs get a sexually transmitted cancer that, in healthy dogs, progresses for two-to-six months, then is stable, and then gets better.  But in dogs with a suppressed immune system, it grows and spreads, providing more evidence for the role the immune system plays in cancer. In people, some cancers are caused by viruses that are contagious, like HPV [human papillomavirus] and hepatitis B."

Cancer can spontaneously disappear. "This is called the ‘abscopal effect,’ and the word means 'away from the target,' which is what happens when you treat a cancer locally and a tumor far from the treated site shrinks or disappears. It’s rare, but it can happen, in animals, and in people as well. If we could understand what causes the ‘abscopal’ effect, we could harness it to fight cancer."

A single cure for cancer is possible. "If you had asked me five or 10 years ago if we could come up with a cure for cancer, I would have said ‘no,’ because cancer is not a single disease; there are 100 different cancers. But today I sing a different tune because of immunology. Skepticism about immunology is finally fading, and the revolution is on."

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Animals, like people, can develop cancer and scientists are learning more about the disease - pointing the way to potential cures - from studying them, a top expert says.
animals, cancer, immunology, breakthrough
Thursday, 23 June 2016 04:05 PM
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