Dogs Really Are Man’s Best Friend: Osteosarcoma Research in Great Danes

Figure 1: A girl playing with her Great Dane

When seven-year-old Laura started complaining of knee pain, her mother became concerned. The day Laura asked to skip ballet class because her knee was bothering her, Mrs. Jones knew something was seriously wrong; unfortunately she did not know how bad it really was. After various scans and many long office visits with stone-faced doctors, Laura was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. The cancer caused a tumor to grow beside her kneecap, causing severe pain. By the time the doctors finally found the tumor, the cancer had metastasized and spread to her ankles and elbows. While surgery was an option for removing the tumor, doctors had no cure to offer.

Over the next two years, Laura braved surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy. Her treatments left her too weak to go outside and play, so she spent most of her time with her Great Dane, Mazie. She was shocked and saddened when the veterinarian diagnosed Mazie with osteosarcoma as well. Her doctor explained the similarity between her cancer and Mazie’s. In fact, Laura and Mazie actually share the same genetic basis for certain types of cancer. The doctor also told Laura how Great Danes like Mazie were being used in research that could someday help develop a cure for her cancer.

In recent years, scientists have been studying canines to learn more about bone cancer. “There are ties between human and animal health, just as there is a bond between people and their pets,” says Stuart Helfand, the head of the oncology program at Oregon State University (Floyd, 2011).

Figure 2: Osteosarcoma in a Great Dane
Figure 2: Osteosarcoma in a Great Dane

Osteosarcomas are the most frequently diagnosed malignant bone tumor in both humans and canines, and although bone cancer is not very common in humans, it is more than 10 times more prevalent in dogs. Great Danes, like many other dogs, are at high risk for bone cancer (Comstock, 2013), which is usually found in the dog’s appendicular skeleton, commonly near the knee, just like Laura’s (National Canine Cancer Foundation, 2006).

Great Danes vs. Humans

Great Danes, like Mazie, present cancer similarly to humans, including rate of metastases, genetic dysregulation, and survival rates. Moreover, dogs have been found to be more homologous to humans than more traditional animal models, like mice. Another reason dogs have been found to be effective models is the fact that they live in the same habitat as humans.

Great Danes are one of the best canine models for human cancer research because they have the highest chance of developing a malignancy in their lifetime (Beil, 2013). Compared to lab rats and mice, Great Danes are better models for human disease because they are genetically more similar. “All too often, treatments that have worked in lab mice haven’t worked when we’ve taken them to human clinical trials. [The canine] model is much closer to human disease.” said Jeffrey Klausner of the University of Minnesota (Lamb, 2004).


In past studies, canines have yielded important information on the formation of cancers such as blood, bone and brain (Beil, 2013). Currently there is work being done at the University of Pennsylvania to formulate a vaccine against canine osteosarcomas. This vaccine has a possibility of being used not only in dogs but in humans as well.


Figure 3: Great Danes

Cancer research in canines is giving medical professionals a greater understanding of cancer in both humans and animals. By knowing how different types of cancer grow, researchers can develop more specific and effective treatments. It also becomes easier to prevent the disease as they identify more causes. Now, Laura does not feel so alone. She has her best friend by her side, sharing the same struggles and helping her in more ways than she ever knew.

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Works Cited

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