Oregon State University researchers tackle canine cancer

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Sept. 13, 2022 1 p.m.
Cairo, a breast cancer survivor and therapy dog is shown In this 2013 photo provided by Oregon State University. Cairo is 3/4 German Shepherd and 1/4 Dutch Shepherd.

Cairo, a breast cancer survivor and therapy dog is shown In this 2013 photo provided by Oregon State University. Cairo is 3/4 German Shepherd and 1/4 Dutch Shepherd.

Theresa Hogue / Courtesy of Oregon State University

A team at Oregon State University is researching antibody treatment for dogs with cancer. One helpful tool in the research has stemmed from an unusual place: llamas and alpacas. Currently, dogs rely on the same forms of cancer treatment that people use, like chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.


The type of treatment the OSU team is researching would rely on “nanobodies,” a tiny antibody that can be used as a tool to fight against body invaders like tumors.

The team is researching a different kind of treatment that dogs can use to fight cancer since current options still take a toll on our four-legged friends.

“They do have all the side effects that humans realize when taking those types of therapeutics as well,” said Dan Mourich, a molecular biologist on the team. “It impacts the quality of life for the dog and the owner.”

He added that many owners typically opt out of treatment altogether.

The treatment the team is working on, an immunotherapeutic, would harness the power of antibodies. Nanobodies are much smaller than human antibodies. They can be found in camelids, which include animals like llamas and alpacas.

“And this antibody allows for a lot of manipulation molecularly and structurally,” said Carl Ruby, a research scientist and instructor at OSU. “That allows us to kind of create what could be like modular, therapeutic Legos that we can build.”


The antibodies allow for a lot of flexibility when attacking certain tissues.

“We often say bigger is better,” said Christopher Cebra, a camelid expert and chair of the clinical sciences department in OSU’s veterinary college. “But I think when you’re in a biological setting, smaller is often better in that if you have something like a tumor which is fairly dense tissue and doesn’t always have a great blood supply, a smaller molecule can work it’s way deeper into the tumor than a larger molecule would.”

Cebra added that the smaller molecule can also cross borders that a larger molecule can’t pass.

The team has lead candidates that they hope to use to develop a drug. They’re working on creating a product that ideally can be commercialized and eventually be available for clinical use.

The team received a grant from the National Science Foundation Partnership for Innovation for $250,000 that is helping them continue this process.

In fact, the flexibility of these nanobodies has created a field day for researchers.

“They offer a lot of unique attributes with the size and convenience of production,” Cebra said. “There’s been a huge amount of interest throughout the biomedical community looking at them for everything from COVID to Ebola virus to treatment of some autoimmune diseases.”

Researchers in England have found that the nanobodies can effectively target the virus that causes COVID-19.

“The sky is really the limit,” Cebra said.

The team spoke to “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller about the cancer treatment research. Click play to listen to the full conversation:


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