updated 02/26/2010 AT 10:38 AM ET
•originally published 02/24/2010 AT 7:45 AM ET
For a dog owner, there’s almost nothing scarier than a cancer diagnosis. Once considered an almost certain death sentence, now dogs with canine oral melanoma – and their owners – have new hope, thanks to a groundbreaking new therapeutic vaccine recently granted full licensure from the USDA.
Oncept is the first therapeutic cancer vaccine the USDA has approved for any species and its success rate is staggering, Dr. Philip Bergman, the primary veterinarian behind the vaccine, tells PEOPLEPets.com. In the past, dogs diagnosed with stage II or stage III oral melanoma survived less than six months when treated with surgery alone. But when Oncept was added into the treatment dogs responded so well that median survival time cannot be determined because many of the dogs are still alive today or died of an unrelated illness.
“We’ve been overjoyed with the results,” says Bergman. “I get letters out of the blue and it’s been very gratifying. We’re starting to see patients having survival times of years.”
A Puppy Reborn
Jean Mann couldn’t be happier with how her 11-year-old black Labrador, Ebony, is doing with the help of Oncept. The dog was first diagnosed with oral melanoma in the fall of 2008 after a vet discovered a mass in the back of his throat that proved malignant. Ebony was treated with both surgery and multiple doses of Oncept – he got his last vaccine just last month – and is now doing amazingly well.
“I am beyond ecstatic at how well he’s done,” Mann tells PEOPLEPets.com. “There are times he’s kind of puppy-like. His world revolves around food and peeing on every blade of grass.”
Dogs like Ebony initially get four doses of the vaccine – one every two weeks – followed by a booster shot every six months. The vaccine is inserted into the inner thigh muscle of the dog with a needle-free canine transdermal device and each time dogs receive a dose of the vaccine, their immune response becomes stronger in the fight against melanoma.
Unlike traditional vaccines that are given before a disease develops, Oncept is considered a therapeutic vaccine and only given once the disease is diagnosed. Bergman says it’s most effective when first given soon after the diagnosis is made.
There can be minimal side effects to the vaccine, like occasional bruising at the injection site, though Ebony hasn’t had any problems.
“He never had any reaction to the vaccine, never changed his attitude or his demeanor,” says Mann. “He never displayed ill symptoms.”
Help for People, Too?
The vaccine is especially significant because many in the medical community feel it might eventually lead to a cancer vaccine for humans. In fact, Bergman teamed with Dr. Jedd Wolchok of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center more than 10 years ago to develop the vaccine and study its impact in both dogs and people.
“We’re very excited about continuing research into this vaccine to explore the potential implications it has for humans,” Wolchok said in a statement. “We hope this will result in improved cancer treatment for all.”
In the meantime, dogs and their owners can reap the benefits of this remarkable treatment, which should now be available in many veterinary oncology offices throughout the country.
Mann says she would not hesitate to recommend it to other dog owners and is just thrilled that it’s helped Ebony live a longer life – with gusto.
“He’s the happiest dog on the planet,” says Mann. “And he’s doing really well.”
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