Michiana native hopes canine cancer vaccine can translate to humans

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Pet lovers are a different breed. Many people consider their pet to be a member of the family and will do almost anything to give them a good life.

Sadly, like humans, many animals can be sickened by cancer. That led a Yale researcher, who hails from South Bend, to start a trial with our canine friends.

He lost his own precious dog, Savannah, to cancer, and he hopes his vaccine research may put an end to that excruciating loss for both humans and our four-legged friends.

Those who knew Mark Mamula when he was swimming for Clay High School or when he was studying as a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame wouldn't be surprised to learn that he's leading critical research into whether a canine cancer vaccine could lead to a cure in humans.

Maureen McFadden sat down with him last week as he and his wife were visiting family in South Bend.

"This is a real clinical trial that almost perfectly resembles human trials," Dr. Mamula explained. "Really simply put, it's a vaccination for various forms of breast cancers, colon cancer, osteosarcoma."

But these are not dogs who live in cages in laboratories. They're family pets who he, along with his colleague Dr. Gerald Post of the Veterinary Cancer Center of Norwalk, Connecticut, see each week.

"Everyone's dogs who have cancer, they walk in clinics with various tumors and are being treated with this experimental therapy," Dr. Mamula says.

It's a vaccine that Dr. Mamula has been working on in his own Yale lab for roughly 10 years and, together, the two men are studying whether it works in man's best friend.

"They get two vaccinations and are followed over the course of their disease, including MRI and CAT scans, ultrasound. Some animals still receive chemotherapy," Dr. Mamula explains. "I'd also like to emphasize this is not conventional chemotherapy. These do not have the side effects that most people realize that chemo has on humans as well as dogs."

While just six months into the trial, they are optimistic about what they're seeing.

"We're seeing in many of these aggressive forms of cancer that they're not getting worse, they're not increasing in size," he reveals. "Of course, many humans with cancers know that if you can maintain the level of tumor size or reduce them, those are all good things for patients, human patients -- same thing in dogs."

Which makes the combination of man and man's best friend all the more important.

"The reason that this trial is very important to our proposed human trials is that canine cancers look, for all the world, very similar to human cancers," Dr. Mamula explains. "They progress and are aggressive much in identical ways that human cancers are."

So if this canine trial proves to work in man's best friend, Dr. Mamula can only fathom what it could mean for those of us on the other side of the leash. Vaccines that might one day prevent and cure cancers.

"We think if this works it will provide the type of lifelong immunities much like childhood immunities do for various childhood infections," Dr. Mamula explains.

Those who give us unconditional love on a daily basis may one day give us a cure that has eluded us for so long.

Dr. Mamula has been at Yale for 28 years. He hopes these trials may eventually spread to clinics throughout the U.S., including here in Michiana.

If all goes as planned, Dr. Mamula and Dr. Post hope they may be taking their research to clinical trials in humans in the next year and a half.

They treat 10 to 15 dogs each week. If you'd like to know more about the trials or think they may be able to help you out, contact the doctors at:

Dr. Mark Mamula
Yale University School of Medicine

Dr. Gerald Post
Veterinary Cancer Center
Norwalk, CT (203) 838-6626