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An RNA staining of canine bladder cancer organoids and their parent tumors. $120,000 in 2020 Margaret B. Barry Cancer Research Program award funding will allow Iowa State University professor of translational health and small animal internal medicine Karin Allenspach and associate professor of quantitative pharmacology Jonathan Mochel to investigate canine bladder cancer in order to better treat human bladder cancer patients. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mochel
06.18.2020

ISU Researchers Receive 2020 Barry Award to Make Strides in Bladder Cancer Treatment

By Caitlin Ware, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research

A team of Iowa State University researchers has been selected to receive the 2020 Margaret B. Barry Cancer Research Program award to advance the efficacy of bladder cancer treatments.

Administered by the Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), the Barry award is given each year to faculty or professional and scientific (P&S) researchers to further cancer research, specifically in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Professor of translational health and small animal internal medicine Karin Allenspach and associate professor of quantitative pharmacology Jonathan Mochel were recently named the recipients of the annual award, and will receive $120,000 over two years. The pair will use Barry award funding to investigate canine bladder cancer to produce a model for predicting drug responses in human bladder cancer patients.

“Bladder cancer is one of the most aggressive cancers someone can get, and despite the fact that there are new drugs available to treat most cancers, there has not been any true progress in terms of bladder cancer prognosis,” Allenspach said. “There is a real need to improve treatment options. Receiving this award and the foundational funding it provides is pivotal for preliminary data collection to address that need. We have no doubt this opportunity will yield a very fruitful collaboration.”

With over one million new cases diagnosed every five years, bladder cancer is the ninth most common cancer in the world. And due to the disease’s high rate of recurrence and lack of effective drug therapies, the survival rate for patients is often low. Historically, using traditional rodent models to study bladder cancer and optimize treatment plans has been somewhat ineffective, due mainly to the fact that mice do not naturally develop bladder cancer. But Allenspach and Mochel believe the key to better treating bladder cancer in humans lies in looking toward a new animal model: dogs.

At a molecular level, dogs share several important characteristics with humans, including how frequently they get bladder cancer, how it metastasizes throughout their organs, and how it responds to treatment. As part of their Barry award research, Allenspach and Mochel will capitalize on those similarities by using canine three-dimensional urine cell cultures, called tumor organoids, to screen chemotherapeutics for use with both humans and dogs. By collecting urine samples from dogs and human patients with bladder cancer, they plan to grow “miniature bladder cancers” in test tubes to determine the best drugs and doses in vitro before administering a specific treatment to patients.

Using the large amount of canine bladder cancer cases typically seen at the College of Veterinary Medicine — as well as urine samples from human patients with bladder cancer, to be provided by the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota — the duo will develop a biobank of 40 to 50 cases over the next two years to characterize the tumor organoids, as well as test prototypes of three novel drug classes for bladder cancer on them.

“Our goal is to establish a tool that can be used to predict drug efficacy on a particular cancer before ever using that treatment on a patient,” Mochel said. “Cancer treatments are not a magic formula. For a treatment to be effective, it has to be the right drug, in the right patient, at the right dose. This paradigm optimizes the chances of treatment being successful and minimizes the harmful side effects of cancer treatments. The impact of this research will not only mean revolutionizing the way we approach treating bladder cancer in humans, but also in dogs.”

The first year of Allenspach and Mochel’s Barry award funding will be used to focus on data collection, with year two slated to tackle data analysis and drug testing.

“Cancer, particularly bladder cancer, continues to be one of the greatest challenges facing the medical community, both due to its complexity and the lack of successful treatment options currently available,” said Guru Rao, incoming interim vice president for research. “The OVPR is proud to be able to support this research initiative, which has the potential to drastically change the way we combat this disease and ensure better quality of life for patients.”

The Margaret B. Barry Cancer Research Program award, established in 2005 with an estate gift from Margaret Barry, is open to all Iowa State University faculty and eligible P&S researchers (P37 and above) in the College of Veterinary Medicine. More information about the application, review, and award process can be found here.