Arlene Weintraub, a veteran health and biotechnology writer, is also a lifelong dog lover.
When her sister died after a brutal struggle with gastric cancer, she sought comfort in learning about cancer research and became intrigued by the growing field of comparative oncology, in which scientists recruit dogs with cancer for clinical trials aimed at benefiting not only canine but human patients as well.
As you might imagine, the phrase “man’s best friend” comes up in Weintraub’s new book, “Heal: The Vital Role of Dogs in the Search for Cancer Cures.”
Dogs are particularly useful, she writes, because they get many of the same cancers that humans do, including lymphoma, melanoma and breast, bone and gastric cancers. She writes about clinical trials involving 206 dogs that began in 2001 and led to Palladia, the first FDA-approved cancer drug for pets, and how that research provided insights into developing a similar drug for people called Sutent.
As she broadened her inquiry, she looked into hundreds of research programs that involve both dogs and people, and she learned about some dogs that have shown a remarkable ability to sniff out cancerous tumors. She talked with animal rights activists about the use of animals in research.
She even has a chapter on research involving cats — though felines don’t get cancer as often as dogs, and their cancers are less similar to humans’.
Weintraub puts this narrative into the context of a search for hope. And, indeed, she says the information has made her more optimistic about better treatment for patients like her sister.
But as oncologist Dan Aderka, who managed Weintraub’s sister’s care, told her, there is a frustrating disconnect between research and real patients. “Cancer models can seduce you into thinking they’re real life. . . . But we treat human beings, not mice or dogs.”