Making a dog's life longer

15 July 2016

Lymphoma is a common cancer in dogs with different breeds having different rates of the disease, which suggests a genetic component. The Mac and Jetty Lymphoma Research Project is unravelling the genetics to find answers.

Mac and Jetty were two beautiful border collies and hugely important family members to Anne Evans and Warwick Adams as they ran their vineyard and cellar.

“Mac and Jetty won hearts wherever they went,” Anne says. “They were excellent judges of character and quite discerning.”

When the two dogs were diagnosed with lymphoma and later passed away, Anne wanted to turn her sorrow into something more practical. As it happened, the two vets who treated the dogs at the Bega and Cobargo clinics, Dr Helen Schaefer (nee Oates) (BVSc ’89) and Dr Jane Woolacott (nee Lacey) (BVSc ’01), were Sydney alumni, and they suggested contacting the University. That contact lead to Anne and Warwick making a gift to the University.

Border collies Mac and Jetty.

The result of this gift is the Mac and Jetty Lymphoma Research Project. Led by Associate Professor Peter Williamson (PhD (Vet Science) ’93), in the Faculty of Veterinary Science, the project aims to unravel the genetic basis for one of the most common cancers in dogs.

“Some breeds of dog exhibit an extremely high rate of the disease,” says Associate Professor Williamson. “Our group has found a possible genetic area that predisposes another dog breed – bullmastiffs – to lymphoma, so we’re keen to investigate whether this is the case in border collies.”

The research may also have impacts on lymphoma in humans which has many similarities to canine lymphoma, with humans and canines responding to treatments in a similar way. Since human lymphoma is the most common form of haematological or blood cancer in Australia, and the sixth most common form of cancer overall, the potential benefits of this research are far-reaching.

The Mac and Jetty Lymphoma Research project started in earnest in 2016, with Associate Professor Williamson recruiting PhD student Pamela Soh (BAnVetBSc(Hons I) ’15) and master’s student Katrina Cheng (BVSc(Hons) ’11) to work on the project.

Soh’s honours research looked at the function and structure of bacterial proteins found in poultry, called bacterial proteomics, which brought together molecular bioscience and veterinary science.

“The project will help us understand the heritability of lymphoma and facilitate the development of new breeding strategies to control its incidence in these dogs,” says Soh. “I’ll be examining proteomic and metabolomic aspects of lymphoma in border collies to help us understand how the biochemical pathways are affected. This could lead to earlier diagnosis and, eventually, better treatments.”

Associate Professor Peter Williamson, left, and PhD student Pamela Soh.

Soh’s co-researcher, Cheng, has worked as a veterinarian in small animal general practices and referral hospitals, but her strong interest in veterinary oncology brought her back to the University for further studies. Her study program includes a research component, so she decided to join the Mac and Jetty Lymphoma Research Project.

“There is potentially a large amount of information and data regarding lymphoma in dogs available from veterinary clinics, kennel clubs and pet owners,” explains Cheng. “My role in the project is to collect the information and evaluate it in a scientific manner.

“I have always been very interested in research that contributes to improvement of the quality of life for animals,” she says.

As border collies are a very popular breed, the team has been able to access many samples from both healthy and diseased border collies.
“Our initial results suggest that in cases where dogs develop lymphoma early in life – about four years of age – there may be a genetic predisposition,” Associate Professor Williamson says.

Anne and Warwick still miss Mac and Jetty and they’re glad to be contributing to a greater understanding of lymphoma. “We’re hoping that if the research achieves a successful outcome, other dogs may be spared the suffering that Mac and Jetty endured,” Anne says.

“Dogs give us so much unqualified love and devotion without expecting anything in return. I could never repay Mac and Jetty for the joy they brought into our lives.”

If you breed or own border collies, we invite you to participate in the Mac and Jetty Lymphoma Research project by contacting us via the project website or fill in the survey.

Written by Katynna Perry
Photography by Bill Green

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