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New research into an aggressive type of cancer, histiocytic sarcoma, could benefit one of the UK’s native gundogs, the Flatcoated Retriever.

More than 50% of Flatcoated Retrievers die of cancer, according to a UK study, and they are particularly susceptible to histiocytic sarcoma. At the time of diagnosis, almost half of affected Flatcoated Retrievers will have a tumour in multiple locations in the body and the outlook for these dogs is poor.

Scientists at the veterinary charity, the Animal Health Trust, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, will undertake new research which they hope will help create a simple blood test to identify Flatcoated Retrievers with early-stage histiocytic sarcoma, improving the chances of successful treatment.

Drs Dobson, Constantino-Casas and Sagan at the University of Cambridge have been working with owners of the breed for many years to investigate the cancer and its potential genetic basis. A ‘Tumour Survey’ conducted over a period of 25 years has helped establish an archive of tumour and tissue submissions with over 3,000 samples. This along with information collected will prove valuable for the study.

Dr Anna Hollis, cancer researcher at the Animal Health Trust, said, “I have Flatcoated Retrievers and have lost one of them to histiocytic sarcoma – it is absolutely devastating. This research could make a significant difference, and that is a huge personal motivation for me. Histiocytic sarcoma is a particularly tricky cancer to diagnose, because the tumours are frequently located deep within or between the muscles of the upper limbs – underneath the shoulder is a common location.

“Often lame dogs are rested and given pain relief before imaging is sought. Delayed diagnosis is a potential problem with histiocytic sarcoma given its aggressive nature and ability to spread rapidly to other locations within the body. If we could identify affected dogs at an earlier stage, this may allow more successful treatment of the disease.”

The research is being generously funded by the Flatcoated Retriever Society (FCRS) and the FCRS Rescue, Rehousing and Welfare Scheme.

The Flatcoated Retriever Breed Health Co-ordinator, Liz Branscombe, who recently won the Kennel Club’s 2019 Breed Health Coordinator Award for her work in promoting breed health initiatives for Flatcoated Retrievers, said, “The Flatcoated Retriever Society has regularly supported breed specific cancer research initiatives over the years. When we were told of plans by researchers at the Animal Health Trust and the University of Cambridge to instigate a pilot study to further understand histiocytic sarcoma we were keen to make a donation towards funding the project.

“Sadly, there is a high incidence of this aggressive form of cancer in our beautiful breed. Early detection of the disease is key in optimising cancer treatment and prolonging survival time so the prospect of a diagnostic blood test for use in the future is exciting.”

Dr Mike Starkey, Head of Cancer Research at the Animal Health Trust, said, “Cancer remains one of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of dogs, but through research we are making major strides forward in finding ways to beat it.”

What next

The research will focus on microRNAs which can vary between different types of cancer and abnormal levels are often found in tumours. They can even be found within the blood of cancer patients meaning a simple blood test could reveal the presence of a tumour. Previous research indicates there may be a specific set of microRNAs whose levels are altered in histiocytic sarcomas in Flatcoated Retrievers.

Researchers plan to confirm whether this is true and then if identified, investigate if measuring the levels of these microRNAs within a Flatcoated Retriever tissue sample can be used to accurately identify the cancer.

This means if a Flatcoated Retriever is showing non-specific clinical signs of the disease such as depression, lethargy, appetite or weight loss, they could be tested for the presence of the histiocytic sarcoma-associated microRNAs. A dog with a ‘positive’ test result could then have an early MRI scan and histopathology done to confirm the diagnosis, hopefully at a stage where treatment would be more successful.

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