For more than 1.5 million Americans diagnosed with cancer each year and 40,000 U.S. children now in treatment for the deadly disease, some of the best medicine might come, as Dr. Doolittle said, from talking to the animals – and learning from them.
In a packed Capitol Hill committee room , scientists and researchers recently briefed Congress on new advances and pioneering research in the effort to battle cancer, based on observations being made about how some animals avoid getting cancer, and how the very presence of others may make a difference in young cancer patients and even their families. In fact, the development of new drugs, the study of animal genes, and the innovative use of interventions involving animal therapy are shedding new light on the remarkable healing power of the connections between animals and people.
Dr. Joshua Schiffman, pediatric oncologist, Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital and The Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, discussed promising new avenues in cancer treatment arising from research on cancer in elephants, who have many times the number of cells we do but experience a much lower rate of cancer owing to the presence of many copies of a special cancer-killing gene known as the p53 gene. Working with elephants from Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey’s Center for Elephant Conservation, Dr. Schiffman and other scientists at the center, including Dr. Wendy Kiso, discovered that elephants have 40 copies of the p53 gene, while a healthy person has two copies. The study’s full findings have been published in the Journal of American Medical Association. Dr. Schiffman is now working together with Dr. Avi Schroeder from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to take this discovery from elephants and use nanotechnology to create novel drugs for cancer treatment and prevention. In addition, Dr. Schiffman is now working to put actual elephant p53 (eP53) genes into human cancer cells in the laboratory to demonstrate their effectiveness at killing cancer.
“Animals have the answer,” said Dr. Schiffman. “What we need to do as people is to figure out what they know, so no child ever has to get cancer again.”
“When we first learned that elephants rarely get cancer, we were intrigued,” said Alana Feld, Executive Vice President and Producer with Feld Entertainment. “When we further learned that elephants could possibly hold the key to pediatric cancer treatment, we knew we had to get involved. With the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America, our ability to advance this research is immense.”
“We have 150 years of experience in working with elephants,” said Dr. Wendy Kiso, Research and Conservation Scientist at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Center for Elephant Conservation. “This research is groundbreaking and elephants may hold the answer to cancer.”
Helping Child Cancer Patients (and their families) With Therapy Animals
The healing connections between people and animals are also being explored in an innovative study by American Humane Association of the therapeutic effects of therapy animals on pediatric cancer patients and their families. While stories of the value of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) have tantalized the medical communities for many years, outcomes were largely anecdotal, and its use has never before been rigorously evaluated in the context of pediatric oncology as a complementary treatment option for children and families. This has hindered the ability of AAT to be recognized by those in the research, funding and healthcare fields as a sound treatment option. Additional key research gaps – such as the impact of AAT on therapy animals – also exist, which render AAT best practices incomplete.
American Humane Association launched its Canines and Childhood Cancer (CCC) study to rigorously measure the well-being effects of AAT for children with cancer, their parents/guardians, and the therapy dogs who visit them. The CCC study is made possible through a generous grant from Zoetis with matching funds from the Pfizer Foundation. Additional funds were received through a grant from the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation. This three-stage scientific study consists of a comprehensive needs assessment (Stage I), a six-month pilot study (Stage II), and a full clinical trial (Stage III – current stage), involving five children’s hospitals. The five hospital sites collecting data during the Full Clinical Trial are: St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa, Fla.; Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland, Ore.; UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento, Calif.; UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center/Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts in Worcester/North Grafton, Mass; and Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.
Preliminary findings indicate a host of physiological and psychological benefits to both patients and family members.
Kristy Montalbano, the mother of a child cancer patient in the study, spoke at the briefing, saying, “In the beginning phase of treatment, he felt terrible, had no energy, and was scared. He really didn’t talk much and would curl up against us to be held. Everyone was very nervous and anxious. By the end of the first visit with therapy dog Swoosh, he sat in a chair next to the dog to take a picture. On the way home all he did was talk about Swoosh. Mitchell looked forward to going to clinic and receiving treatment as he got to see his furry friend. This decreased the amount of stress not only on Mitchell but made it less stressful to us as parents and his brothers, as well. It took his mind (and ours) away from treatment and needles to interacting with Swoosh. The opportunity to be a part of this study with Swoosh has been such a blessing in our lives during an extremely stressful time. We believe that Mitchell wouldn’t have gone through his treatment as easily and with such a great attitude had he not been able to interact with Swoosh and have something to look forward to. His love for animals brought a sense of normalcy and childhood back to him and us as a family and we are forever grateful for those involved.”
Michelle Thompson, therapy dog Swoosh’s handler, said of the study, “There are many anecdotal stories about the power of animals to help children with cancer, but it is very important that we can put hard science behind them and prove the effectiveness of this kind of therapy. I’ve seen scared, crying, fearful children become happy and stronger, ready to handle their upcoming treatments better. Having a therapy animal gives them the inner strength that helps them cope better and creates an atmosphere more conducive to treatment and healing.”
Based on measurements of cortisol levels in the therapy dogs involved in the study, researchers are also finding a low level of canine stress from the AAT interactions. Full results of the CCC study will be reported in early 2017.
“We anticipate that the Canines and Childhood Cancer study will be a milestone in our understanding of the benefits of the vital bond shared between people and animals,” said Dr. Amy McCullough, national director of Humane Research and Therapy™ at American Humane Association. “Research findings are expected to increase access to therapy animals in hospital environments; enhance therapy dog training and practice; and most importantly, improve well-being outcomes for children and families facing the considerable challenges of childhood cancer.”
“The toll cancer takes on families is heartbreaking,” said Dr. Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of American Humane Association, which for 139 years has worked to strengthen the connection between people and animals for the mutual benefit of both. “But, as we learned today from our speakers, hope is alive and well, and it comes from our friends in the animal kingdom. Through this new research, we learned yet again about the power of the human-animal bond and the promise it holds for all of us.”