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A new vaccine developed by Penn professors for dogs with blood cancers may help humans overcome lymphoma.

Oct. 18, the School of Veterinary Medicine announced that the first cancer vaccine for dogs with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a blood cancer category with a high mortality rate — was developed by professors at Penn Vet and the Perelman School of Medicine.

Led by Vet professors Nicola Mason and Karin Sorenmo and Medical professor Robert Vonderheide, the study was published online in the journal PLoS ONE at the end of August.

The team recruited 18 dogs to study the vaccine over two years, beginning in 2006. In order to be eligible for the study, dogs suffering from lymphoma had to have been just-diagnosed, with no previous record of having the disease.

The dogs were separated into two groups. Sixty-four dogs received chemotherapy immediately after they entered the laboratory, and the other group — consisting of 19 dogs — went through surgery first to remove one of their tumors. This smaller group had blood samples taken before receiving the therapy.

With traditional therapy, 60 to 85 percent of the dogs’ diseases go through remission, but the cancer eventually returns after one year.

Using this new vaccine, 89.5 percent of dogs in the treatment group were still alive at the end of a year of observation, as compared to 74.1 percent in the control group.

Mason said the vaccine did not seem to work well after initial relapses, but it began to work after the second relapse, which enabled dogs with vaccine treatment to have a longer disease-free time interval.

The team created the vaccine from the tumor and blood and injected it into dogs right after they received the therapy.

Among the 19 dogs, 10 died of lymphoma and three died of other causes. Six are still alive with no evidence of lymphoma, making the current vaccine survival rate 31.5 percent. Only 7.7 percent of dogs in the other group “achieved a durable second remission,” according to the study.

Trials for all the dogs were completed in two years, but researchers spent at least one additional year following and monitoring the dogs to check the performance.

For Mason, the most challenging parts were technical.

“I think that the actual generation of the vaccine was technically challenging, and the immunological analysis of the dog’s response to the vaccine was also challenging,” Mason said.

She hopes this study will eventually help scientists to find measures to cure human lymphoma.

“I think that it has important implications not just for dog lymphoma, because we know that lymphoma in dogs is similar to [that in] people,” Mason said. “If we can find the therapy to prolong the survival of the dogs, then we have high hopes that similar therapy may be found for human to prolong survival.”

After this research, her team will focus on streamlining the process of vaccine production to optimize the process to see if they can prolong the disease-free interval by making the vaccine more effective.

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