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DENVER/April 13, 2018 – Morris Animal Foundation has awarded a $775,000 grant to the University of Pennsylvania to test a vaccine that could improve longevity and quality of life for dogs with the deadly bone tumor, osteosarcoma. The research team will conduct clinical trials to evaluate a novel immunotherapy treatment which combines a molecule expressed by cancer cells with a modified live form of the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes.

A pilot study demonstrated this combination elicited a powerful, targeted immune response directed against osteosarcoma cells in patients suffering from this type of cancer.

“This could be an incredible breakthrough in the fight against osteosarcoma, a highly aggressive and deadly cancer,” said Dr. Kelly Diehl, Senior Scientific Programs and Communications Adviser at Morris Animal Foundation. “For the last 50 years, Morris Animal Foundation has been funding cancer studies, and this is one of the largest, single grants we have ever awarded. The results of the pilot study were so compelling, that we knew we had to support this research team and their progression to a clinical trial.”

The vaccine supplements standard osteosarcoma treatment of amputation and chemotherapy by attacking cancer cells that have spread to other organs. The vaccine was created by removing harmful genes from the Listeria bacteria and then attaching markers of osteosarcoma cells.

The bacteria serves as a delivery system to introduce the cancer marker to the patient’s immune system and instruct it to eliminate the tumor cells that express this marker. After receiving the vaccine, the patient’s immune system attacks the weakened bacteria, discovers the cancer cell marker, and then seeks out and destroys the cancer cells remaining in the body that were previously unrecognized by the immune system.

“We know that the traditional standard-of-care treatments we use for osteosarcoma are not effective at eliminating all tumor cells because, despite standard of care, the majority of dogs still die from metastatic disease,” said Dr. Nicola Mason, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “This immunotherapeutic approach is very promising as it induces a patient’s own immune system to combat cancer cells, wherever they may be, from within.”

Researchers tested the vaccine in a pilot study with 18 dogs. Those that received the vaccine lived more than twice as long as the historical, matched, control group, with median survival times of 956 days compared to 423 days. The current prospective, controlled, clinical trial, funded by Morris Animal Foundation and performed through the Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium at the National Institutes of Health, will evaluate this novel immunotherapy in 80 dogs at 11 of the top, university-based veterinary centers across the United States. The study will compare the immune responses and progression free and overall survival of immunized dogs to a group of dogs that received standard of care alone. The study also will address the ability of the immunotherapy to retard metastatic disease in enrolled patients that develop metastatic disease prior to their scheduled receipt of the immunotherapy.

Osteosarcoma is the most common primary bone tumor in canine patients. It is estimated to occur in more than 10,000 dogs annually, most often in larger breeds, and kills more than 85 percent of its victims within two years. This is often due to the cancer’s ability to metastasize to other parts of the body, even after the original tumors were treated.

This study is the most recent in a series of osteosarcoma research projects funded by Morris Animal Foundation following the launch of an osteosarcoma initiative by the Foundation in 2015 to fight metastatic disease in osteosarcoma.

Other osteosarcoma research projects funded by the Foundation include:


About Morris Animal Foundation

Morris Animal Foundation’s mission is to bridge science and resources to advance the health of animals. Founded by a veterinarian in 1948, we fund and conduct critical health studies for the benefit of all animals. Learn more at