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Cancer in Dogs, Cats, and People

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  • Title: Research Assistant Professor, North Carolina State University
  • Education: PhD, University of Leicester, 2000
  • Recommended by: Barbara Sherry

Dogs and people aren't that different, especially if you take a long view — go back far enough and there's a mammalian ancestor common to both. That's why North Carolina State University's Rachael Thomas is studying dog lymphoma with an eye toward how it is similar to human lymphoma, particularly focusing on genetic abnormalities correlated with disease subtype. "Human lymphoma and dog lymphoma effectively share an absolutely extraordinary level of conservation," Thomas says.

Currently, Thomas is focusing on developing resources so that she and her colleagues can compare the genetic profiles of human and canine lymphomas. She has made a high-resolution genomic microarray for the dog containing a panel of genetic markers that have been mapped back to the dog genome. "We can now directly convert information we have obtained on chromosome abnormalities to establish, by looking at the genome sequence assembly, which genes are impacted by those genomic abnormalities and, in turn, translate that back into the corresponding regions of the human genome to see whether the human and the dog counterparts of the same disease actually share the effects of same-gene frequency," Thomas says.

Dogs are a population of highly inbred animals that have predispositions to certain cancers, making their population easier to study than humans. "It [is] far easier for us to generate large amounts of genomic information that we can actually translate back and forth," Thomas says.

Looking ahead

For the future, Thomas is looking to move beyond the dog to study lymphoma in the cat. In cats, lymphoma is associated with inflammation, particularly in response to the feline immunodeficiency virus. This, Thomas says, is also a naturally occurring system to study the lymphoma that people with HIV develop, as well as how viral infections and cancer are intertwined. "By which I mean," she adds, "working out what is actually the trigger that causes the transition from a benign, chronic form of inflammation into full-blown malignancy."

As she did in dog, Thomas is developing the tools to study genetic variation in feline lymphoma. "My hope is that in the next few years, I can develop this area of feline genomics so that ... we can actually really get a handle on some of these factors which are a big feature of human cancers but for which there is no other feasible model that we can study," she says.

Publications of note

Thomas's work on microarrays for the dog genome was just published in Cytogenetic and Genome Research. But her work on the dog genome goes back to her undergraduate days, and she is one of the many authors on the dog genome sequence assembly paper published by Nature in 2005. "That is something that I will always be proud of," she says.

And the Nobel goes to …

"What I would really love to be able to do is ... translate our discoveries in genomics into some form of tool that really does represent a genuine, meaningful advancement in cancer diagnosis, disease management, for both humans and veterinary species," Thomas says. "That really exemplifies this whole 'one medicine' concept that we have, that the combination of those two fields has far more impact than just looking at them separately."

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