Dr. Kari Ekenstedt's Research - Canine Mammary Cancer

Why is Dr. Ekenstedt only at Carver Lake in the evenings?  What does she do during the day?

If you have been to our clinic lately and have had  chance to meet me (Dr. Kari Ekenstedt), then it's possible you've asked yourself the same questions.  I would like to answer them!

When I finished veterinary school and got my license in 2005, rather than go into full-time practice, I opted to continue my education by pursuing a PhD in the area of canine molecular genetics and genomics.  Therefore I am still in school and working on a couple of research projects.  One is inherited epilepsy in dogs - I'll write more about that next month.

My other project is the genetic basis for mammary (breast) cancers in certain high risk breeds of dogs, and that is what I'd like to tell you about this month.

Mammary cancer rates in dogs are actually very low in this country compared to Western Europe and Scandinavia because we practice early spaying of our female dogs in the USA.  If you do not plan to breed your dog, it is an excellent idea to spay her before her first heat-cycle to avoid certain types of cancers.  Since mammary cancer has a hormonal component, early spaying also decreases the risk for this type of cancer.

Looking at data on dogs who develop mammary cancer in countries that do not practice early spaying, such as Sweden, shows us which breeds are at higher risk for developing mammary cancer.  Research shows us that the breeds with the highest risks are Cocker Spaniels, English Springer Spaniels, and German Shepherds.

Studies show that up to 30% of all female English Springer Spaniels in Sweden develop some form of mammary cancer.  When we see disease incidence rates like this, which are much higher than other breeds, we begin to suspect that there is an inherited problem.

We know from studies in humans that there are definitely some mammary (breast) cancers that up to 10% of all human mammary cancers are inherited and can be traced through families.

Several mutations have been found in the genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2 (which stand for BReast CAncer susceptibility genes #1 and #2.)  I am looking at these two genes in dogs from these three breeds.  The work involves sequencing and genotyping, studies, which are forms of genetic studies.

An interesting subset of cases (both in human and veterinary medicine), though very rare, are men/male dogs who develop mammary cancer.  In men, mammary cancer is most often associated with mutations in the BRCA2 gene. 

Interestingly, male Cocker Spaniels appear to have 4.5 times the risk of developing mammary cancer than male dogs in general.  Our hypothesis is that male Cocker Spaniels may have mutations in the BRCA2 gene, similar to what is seen in men.  It may be that  either BRCA1 and BRCA2, or both,  may be involved in these three breeds in predisposing them to the development of mammary cancer.

In order to conduct these genetic studies, we need two types of dogs: Purebred unaffected dogs (controls) and purebred affected dogs.  You and your dog can help!  All we need is a blood sample from unaffected dogs, since we can get DNA from the white blood cells that circulate in the blood. 

From dogs with mammary cancer we collect a blood sample and a sample from  the tumor tissue (which would have been submitted to a lab for a histological diagnosis when your dog had surgery to remove the tumor.)  We also request a copy of your dog's pedigree.

If we determine that there is an underlying genetic mutation that predisposes these dogs to developing mammary cancers then perhaps we will also be able to develop a genetic test to help better inform breeders.  Then breeders could make informed decisions regarding which dogs to mate, selecting healthier dogs.  Ultimately it is my goal to benefit canine health through this kind of research.

So, that is what I do  all day while I am away from Carver Lake.  While I'm  not directly caring for individual pets, I am working to benefit companion animal  health on a broader scale. And, I love what I do!

If you have any questions about my research or are interested in enrolling your purebred Cocker Spaniel, English Springer Spaniel, or German Shepherd in this study, please contact Dr. Ekenstedt at Carver Lake Veterinary Center or directly at her research lab at the University of Minnesota, (612) 624-5322.


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