A research team at Mississippi State’s College of Veterinary Medicine is working to better understand cancer in dogs, and the work also could advance knowledge of human cancer.
Their investigation began with only a tiny blood platelet, but quickly they discovered opportunities for growth and expanding the breadth of the research.
“We have a lot to gain by looking at platelets and how they influence cancer and healing,” said Dr. Camillo Bulla. “A part of our research is looking at the platelet. The platelet is very small, but it gives us a large picture. We hope to be able to find a tumor much sooner by taking a series of blood samples to look at platelet contents.”
Bulla is an associate professor in the college’s pathobiology and population medicine department. He and Dr. Kari Lunsford, a colleague at the college, have formed the Comparative Angiogenesis Laboratory at the university to better understand this process and treat canine patients.
As he explained, cancers need the creation of new blood vessels, called angiogenesis, to survive and grow, and tumors are able to create new blood vessels as pathways to travel and spread. They also are looking at the way platelets interact with tumor cells as they attempt to spread to the area surrounding the tumor or metastasize to distant sites in the body.
Lunsford, an associate professor in the clinical sciences department, said, “We know that metastasizing tumor cells need platelets but it is not yet known what the platelets do for the migrating (metastasizing) tumor. This is one of the questions we hope to help answer.”
Lunsford said she and Bulla foresee a specific focus on patients undergoing cancer treatment.
“If treatments are successful and the cancer goes into remission, we would monitor the patient for a relapse of the disease by looking at its platelets,” Lunsford said. “This type of monitoring would be less invasive than taking biopsies and might also be an earlier indicator that the cancer is returning.”
According to Lunsford, platelets also carry information about tumors and metastasizing cancer cells, and the team hopes that by looking at specific proteins expressed in platelets (from a simple blood sample), they can identify new cancer earlier. Even more importantly, they want to identify when tumors are about to metastasize.
“Our lab has developed a new way to separate platelets from blood samples with far less contamination by other blood cells,” she said. “This new technique was developed by doctoral student Shauna Trichler, and is superior to any isolation technique previously used by researchers in human or veterinary medicine.”
Trichler, of West Linden, Tennessee, is in her first year of work on a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, as well as a doctor of philosophy degree in veterinary medical science.
Lunsford said the research “is already having an impact as researchers from around the country are contacting our lab for advice relating to platelet purification.” Development of the pure samples have enabled the MSU research team to become the first to characterize the canine platelet proteome, the full complement of proteins expressed in the platelet.
“Now that we know what the normal, healthy platelet contains, we can compare it to platelets from patients with cancer to identify which proteins might play a role in cancer metastasis,” Lunsford said. “These changes in platelet proteins may also one day be used as a simple blood test for the early detection of cancer or cancer metastasis.”
Bulla and Lunsford, along with their postdoctoral students, recently attended a special biomedical course at the Harvard Medical School. Only open to a select group of applicants, the visit provided the MSU researchers more opportunities to collaborate and further their studies.
“We really feel like we’ve stumbled into something with the role of the platelet in cancer progression,” Lunsford said. “Being with so many respected, experienced members of the biomedical field really helped us hone in more on what we want to find out about controlling cancer in animals and humans.
“This was an exceptional opportunity,” she continued. “One of the most impressive parts of the course is meeting one of the leaders in brain cancer research, Dr. Isaiah Fidler. While many of the course leaders have their Ph.D.’s and M.D.’s, Dr. Fidler has a veterinary degree.”
Based on what they learned at Harvard and their own work at MSU, the researchers said they feel there is a clear link between the disease in animals and humans. Their efforts also are part of the One Health Initiative, a current worldwide program to expand interdisciplinary collaborations and communications in all aspects of health care for humans, animals and the environment.
“That a DVM is part of leading the charge in brain tumor research helps reinforce and in some ways validate what we are doing here,” Lunsford said. “There is so much overlap in veterinary and human medical research. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity at the Harvard course. It has helped make our direction even more clear.”
Following their return from Harvard, Lunsford, Bulla and other team members began working to secure funding grants that will enable them to expand their research.
“In the hospital we often see patients who may have had tumors for long periods of time, tumors that were previously undiagnosed and did not present any problems,” Lunsford said. “When cancers metastasize and spread is when they become life threatening and debilitating. We want to better understand how to diagnose and control those initial tumors and eliminate the risk of metastasis.
“As veterinarians, we are focused on treating cancer in dogs and we get the bonus of also helping advance treatment of human cancers,” she observed.
By Karen Templeton, Photography by Tom Thompson