Scientists with Heart Target Canine Cancer


CanFel Therapeutics, a pet cancer research company contacted me recently about their fundraising campaign to develop their first antibody drug targeting canine cancer.

According to the company, “Antibody therapeutics demonstrated to be highly successful and of low toxicity in human patients, however, have not been successfully adapted for use in veterinary medicine.”

“CanFel is a very small biotech company, yet already on its way to developing an antibody. We have our ‘proof of concept.’ We take no salaries and we max out our credit cards and 401(k)s on reagents and supplies because, more than anything else, we want to get these therapeutics into the hands of veterinarians,” wrote co-founder Penny Roberts on the CanFel blog.

The campaign goal is $87,000 and runs through February 8. Donation levels range from $10 to $2,000, with optional perks such as illustrated pet portraits, water bottles, collapsible food bowls and bandanas.

Here’s my Q+A with CanFel’s Tony Liang to learn more about their goals for “better, kinder, more intelligent drugs for pets with cancer.”

In layperson’s terms, can you explain how the antibody therapeutics you’d like to develop using the campaign funds will work?
Let’s go to a real world example. Take the lights in your house. They are operated by a switch. The switch is a binary function, on or off. Your house, in essence, is like a cell.

When it is tumorous, it has all its lights on. When it is normal, some lights are on, some lights are off.


click to enlarge

So, how do you go about preventing the lights from all coming on? Well, you can terminate the electricity. That is a very efficient way to kill the lights (as it were), but then you will be in the dark.

An antibody, in essence, gives you a tool that allows you to disable certain switches.

For example, you can have an antibody that is specific to a circuit breaker — shutting off entire set of switches — or antibody to a specific set of switches — shutting off only certain lights. These antibodies would behave in such a way that you can’t physically turn on the switch or it will disable the wires to which the switch goes so that, even if the switch is flipped, no electrical signal is sent.

What’s different about these drugs?
Any vet who can administer an injection can deliver the drug to the patient in question. Unlike chemo or radiation, expensive machines or licensing is not required, nor is there special facilities needed.

Is there a personal story behind your research?
It is actually also the story of the founding of CanFel Therapeutics. Because of this, we, at CanFel, felt that it is the appropriate story that we would like to share with you. The author of the story is Ms. Penny Roberts, she is also the scientist who is behind all the cell line generation at CanFel. These cell lines are indeed the foundation of everything we are hoping to do.

This was Anna’a story. Even though Anna was a cat, cancer is species-independent, it doesn’t discriminate between cats and dogs, or humans for that matter. I have heard deeply compelling stories about animals — pets — with cancer.

As a cancer biologist for most of my career I have had a vested interest in helping develop anti-cancer therapeutics for companion animals. Subsequent to Anna’s death, I took a sample of her tumor. From this small tumor piece I was able to identify and isolate the cells responsible for initiating the tumor. These are cells that are referred to as “cancer stem like cells” in the field of cancer biology/cancer research, and they can play a critical role in the development of anti-cancer therapeutics.

Our plan is to derive antibodies against these cells.

In a way Anna is still contributing to battling the very disease that destroyed her.

We now know, from our work and characterization of her tumor cells, that she had gastric carcinoma, not uncommon in cats. With this knowledge we can develop anti-cancer antibodies to save the lives of future pets that might be afflicted with this disease.

Since Anna’s death we now have many other tumor samples, from dogs and cats, with which we are creating new anti-cancer therapeutics.

But this was Anna’s story.

My Best Friend.

I would never question that, for the most part, dogs offer companionship, compassion, and the kind of unconditional love you would expect from the very best of friends.

I had a best friend. Once.

Her name was Anna.

She was not a dog. She was a cat.

From the time she was a tiny little kitten, she had the household beating to the drum of her very own worldview. She didn’t succeed by demanding, as cats often do. She didn’t judge indiscriminately, as cats often do. She taught by example, and the rest of us fell into line.

She was friendly to most. At the very least, she was cordial to all. You could earn her trust, and she would overlook your faults which, in my case, were many.

She taught me patience, and she taught me how to endure pain.



She had inherited a genetic defect which caused the rear knee to slip out of its socket. Click-click-click as she ran and played. A veterinarian, specializing in these types of things worked his magic. Anna wore a cast on each rear leg for 6 weeks. She had to remain isolated from the rest of the household initially. I slept next to her on the floor listening to her purr, although whether it was from endorphins due to pain, or because she was genuinely glad I was there, I’ll never know. But somehow, it seemed, just being there for her was the least I could do.

She disappeared one day, and did not return that evening as she always would in the past. I slept by the open front door, wishful thinking, hoping the best but expecting the worst, waiting for her return.

And return she did, in that dark mystical hour of the wolf, she sat next to my head, purring, consoling in a sort of chiding way. I closed the door. Anna was home.

Anna was compassionate. Up to a point. She allowed me to feel sorry for myself, offered sympathy or maybe empathy for what I was going through. But when it spilled over into “wallowing” she offered a reality check: “Ok, you feel bad. I get it. Now get over it.” She had a point. I understood. And I did.

As she grew older, she tended to editorialize if her world was not going according to plan, not a complaint, understand, just a few chosen words to illustrate her displeasure.

And she enjoyed nothing better than a good meal. If a cat could be considered a gourmand, Anna was it.

So one day, when she tried but couldn’t seem to eat what normally gave her pleasure, we took her to the vet. She actually sat there patiently, albeit somewhat sardonically, as he poked and prodded.

“She may have a tumor. You need to take her to an oncology specialist.”

My heart sank, and I could only hope that he was mistaken.

We took her home, she sat in my lap. I gave her baby food, which she readily ate.

We took her to the cancer vet, who carefully examined her, went over the x-rays, and sympathetically explained that Anna had either lymphoma or gastric carcinoma. If it was lymphoma, it was possible to extend her life a few months more, but not if it was gastric carcinoma. Did we want to do further tests to confirm?

No. She had no chance at a better life, nor much of an improved one, even for a few months.

The hardest thing I ever did was taking Anna to the vet for the last time. As we drove there, she and I, Anna freely sitting in the seat next to me, I tried to calm her incessant complaining–car rides were the only thing she found intolerable in her entire life–especially ones to the vet–by telling her it would be “all right”,

It wouldn’t be. I was lying. But she quieted down. Probably for me. Not for her.

As I held her, the vet carefully, compassionately, gently wrapped her in a warm towel, and administered a sedative. She became drowsy. She looked up at me. And she purred. I hugged her, ever so gently because–cancer or not–Anna didn’t want me to wallow in self pity. I said goodbye. She fell asleep. And she left.

I had a dream sometime later. In it I saw a woman, of indiscriminate age, but who seemed to possess an almost angelic demeanor, standing in a lush, verdant garden, bathed in the warmth of a brilliant sun. She stretched her arms in a strangely familiar way and said, ” Don’t worry, everything is Ok, I love you”

Goodbye Anna, I love you too.

Donate here or learn more here.

Follow their progress on Facebook.

Featured image by Andy Sheng, Otis & Lucy Photography. Image of Anna by Penny Roberts

2 thoughts on “Scientists with Heart Target Canine Cancer

  1. This was a fantastic post – read the whole thing (sniffle). I’m so glad there is progress out there – wonder what ‘they’re’ doing in other countries re. Canine (animal) cancer… food for thought. Sherie

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