(NEW YORK) — Luke Robinson never liked dogs much until an ex-girlfriend offered him a puppy while he was living in San Antonio. The Great Pyrenees he named Malcolm changed all that.
“It was the first dog of my adult life,” said Robinson, 41. “He was my companion, my mate.”
But at the age of 6, Malcolm was diagnosed with bone cancer — which both devastated and mobilized Robinson.
When a veterinarian from a major university couldn’t tell Robinson why Malcolm got cancer at such a young age, he went on a national crusade to “find out why.”
Robinson walked 2,300 miles over two years to raise awareness, founding in the process Two Million Dogs, an organization that is a pioneer in the field of comparative research — finding common links between animals and humans who have cancer.
Today, a $50,000 grant from the organization is funding such research at Princeton University to learn how breast cancer tumors progress from seemingly benign to malignant ones.
“We are using a new model — no one looked at progression this way,” said Olga Troyanskaya, the computational biologist who is leading the genetic research. “It’s something that is really out there and forward-thinking.”
Troyanskaya is collaborating with Karen Sorenmo, an oncologist at the Ryan Veterinary Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, who has a special interest in mammary tumors.
The pair met when Troyanskaya’s German shepherd Jessie was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2006, and she sought help from Sorenmo.
Sorenmo provided the Princeton project with tumors from shelter dogs that get free treatment.
Dogs have multiple mammary glands and when they develop cancer — unlike humans — they can have multiple tumors.
“The screening is not as good, but when found, on average they have seven masses at different stages of development,” said Troyanskaya. “Some are benign … but they are not truly benign.”
Troyanskaya compares dog and human tumors on a molecular level and hopes to find genetic markers that can give clues to how human breast cancer tumors progress and which ones are more likely to become malignant.
“We are looking at progression in a unique model,” she said. “Way more research has been done in mice … Dogs get these tumors naturally and the physiology is more similar, the way tumors rise is similar, with the hormonal link to breast cancer in women.”
Troyanskaya said she hopes to find targets for drug treatment or predict clinical outcomes in women with breast cancer and help speed up human trials.
“We can help dogs and humans,” she said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio