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A science blog straight from the students and trainees of Cornell Vet

Villarnovo and Dr. McCleery-Wheeler examine a patient

Reworking the cancer-research model–through the patients

When we think of progress in biomedical cancer research, we often conjure up images of lab mice and cell cultures. However, Dr. Kristy Richards, an Associate Professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and her graduate student, Dr. Dania Villarnovo, are taking a unique approach to understanding cancer and developing drug treatments.

Through the use of dogs as a model for cancer, Richards and Villarnovo have been able to bypass many obstacles faced during drug development and are able to start clinical trials at an accelerated pace compared to industry norms. Ultimately, they hope to find more efficient ways to treat cancers that plague both humans and companion animals and hopes to rework the current basic research to the clinical trials pipeline.Villarnovo does cell culture work

Richards’ main research focus is to better understand Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL) in the context of both companion animals and humans. She holds a unique appointment within Cornell, holding appointments at both College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) in Ithaca and Weill Cornell’s Medical School in New York City—running labs in both locations and conducting clinical work in the city.

Collaborations between campuses

Dania Villarnovo, a DVM seeking PhD candidate in the Richards lab, is working on a project that is close to clinical trials. This trial involves the fascin protein and NHL. Villarnovo’s work stems on a fascin-inhibiting drug which was developed and patented by a collaborator at Weill Cornell, Dr. Xin-Yun Huang. Huang reached out to Richards and asked if there was a canine cancer model that could be used to understand the role of fascin in veterinary cancers; Richards automatically thought of NHL. 

Villarnovo and Dr. McCleery-Wheeler examine a canine lymphoma patient.
Villarnovo and Dr. McCleery-Wheeler examine a canine lymphoma patient.

Fascin is a cellular protein that aids in cells’ motility and ability to travel throughout the body. The first step in Villarnovo’s work was to see if there were abnormal levels of fascin expression in canine NHL patients. She found that about half of the cases had extremely high fascin expression, while the other half had low levels. When Villarnovo dug deeper, she found the patients with higher expression of fascin had poorer survival rates compared to the low fascin-expressing lymphoma group. Thus, Richards and Villarnovo hope that inhibiting fascin activity will promote survival and decrease tumor spread in NHL patients.

Reworking the path towards clinical trials

Villarnovo and Richards are excited to announce that their work with the fascin inhibitor in canine patients is close to clinical trials. The normal track for clinical drug development goes as follows: years of basic research, pre-clinical trials in laboratories, clinical trials in humans, and finally FDA approval for humans. This track often takes close to 20 years to complete, amounting to billions of dollars. With less than a 10% success rate, new drugs are often not introduced at the rate in which society requires them. Once a drug does become FDA approved, it is only after years of approval in humans that medical treatments are used on our animal companions. Though the rigorous process is often necessary in order to develop effective drug therapies, the scientific community is realizing there needs to be a more time- and cost-efficient way to develop drugs therapies.

Taking this realization to heart, Richards and Villarnovo are using their location in the College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca and appointment at Weill Cornell to rework this model of cancer research, progression towards clinical trials in canines, rather than human patients, and ultimately move on towards market approval. Through focusing on canine patients, Richards and her team are hoping to rework the clinical trials path.  Rather than physician referrals for trials on humans patients, Richards and her team are testing the drugs efficacy on canine patients first. By using samples from the CVM and finding a link between fascin expression and NHL morbidity, they hope to use the fascin inhibitor to  increase survival rates and by doing so, accelerate market approval for the fascin inhibitor to treat NHL cancers, at least in animals and translate this finding to humans.

The majority of research labs use the mouse or cell culture as a model for cancers. While these models are useful, there are some features that are suboptimal. Dogs are an ideal model for studying cancer because, like humans, their lives are more similar, they are exposed to the same carcinogens, have similar microbiota, and most importantly, cancers spontaneously arise in dogs. Through the use of dogs as a model for NHL, Richards and Villarnovo have been able to find patterns in protein expression that may not have been detected mice or cell culture work.

Through Richards and Villarnovo’s efforts, the path towards speedy drug development and successful clinical trials may have a brighter future. So, is there a fast track towards new drug development and FDA approval that can benefit humans and our favorite furry companions? Not yet but hopefully, there will be soon thanks to Richards and Villarnovo’s work.

Article and photos by Cybelle Tabilas, Graduate Student in Immunology and Infectious Diseases

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