By Kelly Werthmann

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4) – Attention all dog owners! Researchers at Colorado State University are on a mission to cure cancer in canines, and they need more pups to take part. The Vaccine Against Canine Cancer Study (VACCS) could also provide insight into preventing cancer in humans.

“We’re really excited about this study,” Dr. Doug Thamm, Director of Clinical Research at CSU’s Flint Animal Cancer Center, said. “Vaccines are something that I think are near and dear to a lot of our hearts now because they’ve been in the news so much, but vaccinating to try and prevent cancer is much, much more challenging than vaccinating to prevent infections disease like the flu or COVID.”

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(credit: CBS)

The VACCS trial has been underway at CSU for about two years now. More than 500 dogs of the 800 needed have enrolled in the program, including some in the Denver metro area. CBS4 met one of those canines in 2019 and spoke to his owner about why they wanted to be among the first to take part.

“If Fraser can be part of a vaccine to prevent cancer, that would be amazing,” Stephanie Foster said of her then 7-year-old Labrador.

Thamm said more dogs are needed to continue their research.

“We do have some preliminary information that’s good to share,” he said. “We do know the vaccine is stimulating the immune system in these participants the way we hope it does. We haven’t seen any kinds of side effects that will be worrisome. Those are two really, really encouraging facts moving forward.”

There are specific qualifications to take part in the study. Dogs must be between 5.5 and 11.5 years of age, weigh at least 12 pounds, have no previous history of cancer or other significant illness that could result in a life span of less than five years. There are breed restrictions, too.

“[They] will come in for some initial, very thorough health screenings, bloodwork and chest x-rays and other tests to make sure that they’re healthy,” Thamm explained. “The dogs are then randomized to receive either the vaccine or a placebo. Nobody knows who’s getting what, it’s completely blind.”

Participating dogs get an initial series of four vaccines, and they’re checked twice a year by a cancer specialist, Thamm added, to make sure the animals don’t have any evidence of cancer.

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“God forbid a dog in the study does end up getting cancer, there’s actually a financial incentive we can offer here at CSU to defray some of the costs associated with treating cancer,” he said. “So, a pretty good deal.”

This study is deeply personal for Thamm. He, too, has faced his own battles with cancer and it fueled his passion for helping animals.

“I’m actually a double cancer survivor,” he said. “In my 20s I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and actually had to take a year out of vet school to be treated with chemotherapy. It was a very long year, but I went in with a specific kind of lymphoma that had about a 98% cure rate. One of the silver linings about that experience is it did sort of make me take a look at, ‘Gee, I wonder what cancer in animals is like and that could be an interesting thing to study as a career.’”

Thamm is currently being treated for a low-grade leukemia now, but he said it has an extremely good outcome and the “folks up in Fort Collins” are taking good care of him.

In turn, he wants to pay it forward by taking good care of animals and, in this case, canines with cancer. Thamm explained the kind of cancers that dogs get are very similar to the kinds of cancers people get, and the immune systems are alike as well. That’s why there’s hope the VACCS trial will yield positive results for people, too.

“If this type of approach works in dogs with cancer, we really fee like there may be a decent shot that it might work in humans with cancer,” he said.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of California-Davis and Arizona State University are also conducting a VACCS trial. Funds to support the project include a multiyear grant from the Open Philanthropy Project.

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HOW TO ENROLL: CSU Canine Cancer Study

Kelly Werthmann