Cancer is an insidious disease that doesn’t merely affect people; dogs and other companion animals are prone to developing various forms of cancer, too. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, cancers attack dogs at roughly the same rate as humans, and nearly half of dogs over the age of 10 will end up developing cancer.
Dealing with a cancer diagnosis in a four-legged family member can be devastating for their human caretakers; what’s more, treatment options can be limited. To help improve outcomes for canine cancer, life-science startup One Health has launched FidoCure, a novel program that uses genomics and artificial intelligence (AI) to bring precision cancer treatments to dogs—and the research is impacting research in human oncology.
Outsourcing-Pharma spoke with One Health co-founder and CEO Christina Lopes about the company’s technology, its mission, and what the future of cancer treatment (human and dog) might look like.
OSP: Could you please share the ‘elevator presentation’ description of Fido Cure? How has the use of genomic testing in canine cancers and other diseases evolved in recent years?
CL: Cancer care for dogs has not changed much in the last 30 years. Dogs are still treated with the same chemotherapies as they were in the 20th century but we have seen human cancer care advance tremendously, especially in the field of precision medicine.
Receiving oncological care from the vet is also very cost-prohibitive, as prices typically range from $6,000 - $10,000. This all results in only 25% of the dogs diagnosed with cancer yearly receiving any oncological care.
FidoCure combines advances in genomics with those in AI to provide more personalized cancer treatments for dogs in conjunction with veterinarians and pharmacies. They then use the insights gained from these treatments to advance research and treatments for human cancers as well.
Specifically, FidoCure uses gene sequencing to understand the exact genetic mutation causing a dog’s cancer. To start the process, each dogs’ individual mutations are identified by sequencing the DNA of their tumor. FidoCure works with your veterinary oncologist to sequence your dog’s DNA to identify these mutations and then find the right therapy for your dog based on your dog’s specific genomic defects.
If the mutations are actionable (6 in 10 are vs. only 1 in 10 for humans), we can facilitate access to targeted therapies. Genetic sequencing results give us a targeted treatment plan that can be orally administered at home. We’re treated more than 1000 dogs this way. All outcomes are recorded and analyzed.
OSP: How did you come to use your skills and expertise to pursue better treatment options for canine cancers?
CL: I see my role as bridging the financial industry and those with capital with key unmet needs, especially in health. This ranges from financing clean energy projects in Brazil, to helping women in Bolivia, who have some of the highest cervical cancer rates in the world, access pre cervical cancer vaccines during my tenure on International Planned Parenthood’s advisory board.
I became particularly interested in oncology when I cared for my father at the end of his life when he was facing a terminal cancer diagnosis. I saw obvious gaps in the industry that compromised care: chemo and radiation, while powerful forces to fight disease, also damage a patient’s healthy cells.
After his passing, I was inspired to turn my expertise and focus to improving cancer care where I found major inefficiencies, such as the canine world. FidoCure was developed to address these inefficiencies while also propelling advancements in human pharmacology, since the platform produces data needed to advance human oncology research.
OSP: Can you please share your perspective on the differences (and similarities) between canine and human cancers—specifically, the treatment options available, research into therapies, research conducted into potential therapies, etc.?
CL: Dogs and humans share over 350 diseases, with studies showing conserved biological pathways and common mutational drivers among the two species. Cancers in dogs also resemble human disease with respect to clinical symptoms, histopathology, genetic changes, and perhaps most importantly, response and resistance to therapy.
Since humans and dogs evolved together, they share many of the same diseases. Of particular interest are the shared cancer types that are histopathologically and genetically similar. Our pets are even impacted by the same multifactorial inputs that can cause cancer in humans, such as diet, secondhand smoke and pesticides.
Because of these similarities, we are learning that breakthroughs in treating dogs are often applicable to human cancer patients as well. In the past, drug trials with canine participants have been responsible for medical breakthroughs ranging from photodynamic therapy for lung tumors, HER2/ neu breast cancer vaccine, and embolization of prostate cancer.
But even though dogs greatly benefited from trials for humans, none of these breakthroughs were applied for the purpose of curing cancer in dogs. Thankfully, Congress passed a law called AMDUCA, The Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act of 1994, which permits veterinarians to prescribe human FDA-approved drugs to treat pets.
OSP: Could you please share some of the ways in which FidoCure is informing human cancer research and treatment development (and vice versa)?
CL: One of FidoCure’s unique value comes from the fact that we’re attractive to both pet parents and biopharma drug sponsors; we are the only product leveraging a full-suite offering of genomic sequencing, access to precision medicines, and outcome collection, which produces a new scientific framework that supports knowledge for cancer across species.
All of our findings from our work with vet oncologists are funneled into a proprietary dataset that improves the predictive accuracy of pre-clinical testing for human drug development, while simultaneously providing pets with beneficial cutting-edge therapies to improve their wellness. The outcomes of these treatments are then recorded, analyzed, and routed through several databases informing pharmaceutical discovery, drug label extension, and biomarker-driven therapies for hundreds of human cancer types. These findings in turn improve how we treat the millions of people afflicted with cancer every year.
Our body of work is focused on understanding the similarities in metastases and histopathologies between human and canine cancer, especially in the similarities in therapeutic response. FidoCure is deepening our molecular understanding of the cancers that dogs and humans share. We have an upcoming paper with the University of Georgia Cancer Centre exploring this.
OSP: Eisai approached you to collaborate on a potential treatment based on Japanese sea sponges. How did the collaboration originate?
CL: Eisai needed evidence around the efficacy of the drug Eribulin. This is an FDA-approved drug used to treat breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, but Eribulin has never been used to treat the most aggressive type of breast cancer - angiosarcoma.
Eisai was looking for animal models of this particular sarcoma and couldn’t find any. Researchers at the Esai realized that there was a high prevalence of this sarcoma within canine populations and reached out to us to help resource a canine trial.
Because of the abundance of safety information that was already available, they were confident enough to move forward. They used the evidence from our collaboration to bring the drug to human clinical trials at Massachusetts General Hospital - the only hospital where this treatment is available.
OSP: How does a clinical trial for a canine patient population differ from human, and how is it similar?
CL: With canine populations, there’s very little regulatory architecture. Because of this, you need the veterinarian and the family of the pet to be on board, whereas in the human R&D world, you would need to enlist the approval of several boards. There are also a series of different first-line therapies that a patient must attempt before resorting to experimental drugs. Because there isn’t a standard of care for canine patients, we can enroll dogs who need cancer treatments in experimental trials.
OSP: Could you please explain how the findings of the canine trial helped inform Eisai’s eventual human trial?
We helped Esai to successfully validate a drug label extension of the breast cancer drug Eribulin to treat angiosarcoma. Patients suffering from angiosarcoma typically face poor prognosis because there aren’t many treatments available. We designed a canine trial and helped them confirm that the drug was effective enough to seek clinical approval.
OSP: Could you please share the timeline and the progress of the angiosarcoma trial at Mass General?
CL: We are intentionally matching human angiosarcoma Phase II trials with eribulin at Mass General/Harvard and the University of Sydney/St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. Phase II clinical trials test the safety and effectiveness of an investigational drug to learn whether the drug works in treating a specific disease.
We’re hoping that eribulin may work by preventing the cancer cells from dividing and eventually cause the tumor cells to die in human patients. The trial at Mass General began in January of 2018, and the estimated primary completion date is May 31, 2022, with the study possibly concluding on May 31, 2025.
OSP: What’s next for FidoCure—do you have any new research, treatments, collaborations, or other news you can share?
CL: FidoCure has added two leading researchers from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to its respected Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). Corrie Painter, PhD and Ellinor Karlsson, PhD are joining current SAB Chair Cheryl London, PhD - Assistant Dean of Research at Tufts University, and one of the world leaders in the field of targeted therapies in veterinary and comparative oncology, and founding advisor, Former Deputy FDA Commissioner Amy Abernathy. The new appointments come during a milestone moment as One Health gets ready to embark on a first-of-its-kind study at Tufts University around the most aggressive cancer types found in dogs.
In collaboration with FidoCure, [veterinary oncologist] Cheryl London will lead a first-of-its-kind study running clinical trials of the most aggressive cancer type found in dogs, histiocytic sarcoma. This cancer currently carries a terminal prognosis, is largely unresponsive to current oncological tools, and can take a dog’s life in as little as three to four months.
We also have a forthcoming paper with the University of Georgia on the genomic study of canine tumors in client-owned dogs. This is the largest study comparing human and canine cancer at the genomic level.
We are also developing a liquid biopsy for canine cancer, with an initial use case for monitoring canine cancer. From the human cancer standpoint, we could leverage this new technology to discover mechanisms of resistance and gain a better understanding of why tumors become resistant to different drugs.