Going for the Cure
A local veterinarian treats dogs with experimental drugs in the hopes of helping canines and people with cancer
For more than 15 years, veterinarian Chand Khanna researched advanced childhood cancer at the National Cancer Institute at NIH in Bethesda, earning credit for identifying a key protein that caused tumors to metastasize after studying comparable diseases in dogs.
Still, he was troubled that he had never cured a patient’s cancer—he had only learned more about why the disease spread. Three years ago, that paradox prompted him to change careers.
“The reason I left NIH is that I struggled to answer the question: What did I do to influence the outcome for a single patient, human or animal, with cancer?” says Khanna, who had been a senior investigator in pediatric oncology. “I was motivated to deliver the innovations to patients.”
These days, Khanna is just as likely to be found presenting his research at a global conference as he is to be treating dogs such as Da Vinci, a 12-year-old hound mix suffering from a type of blood vessel cancer, at the Regional Veterinary Referral Center in Springfield, Virginia. As the chief science officer for Ethos Vet, Khanna treats ill canines with experimental small molecule inhibitors and immunotherapies through a network of North American veterinary hospitals. His ultimate goal is to improve cancer treatments for people.
Khanna, 51, a Chevy Chase resident and a dog owner, emphasizes that his patients are beloved pets with naturally occurring cancers, not animals infected with a disease for the purpose of scientific research. His work, however, troubles some animal rights activists and some cancer researchers who want more resources devoted to human studies. But even immunologist Jim Allison, who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his advances in immunotherapy, has acknowledged that results from treating dogs “could be useful” because the canine genome is so well mapped.
“For almost every cancer that occurs in a human…there is a version that occurs in the dog,” Khanna says.
Khanna, a Canadian and American dual citizen, earned his doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. A residency at the University of Minnesota introduced him to the world of comparative oncology—studying cancer in animals to better understand the disease in humans—and he went on to earn a Ph.D. in pathobiology at the university.
“Before my residency, I had never even thought of becoming a research veterinarian,” he says.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1997, he got a job at NIH and was soon running the comparative oncology program while also moonlighting as a local veterinarian. In 2015, Khanna gave up his NIH post to spend more time collaborating with global researchers and the pharmaceutical community on cancer treatments.
When Khanna asks dog owners to consider using a trial drug to treat their pets, he explains that most human patients receive trial drugs as a last resort after previously proven treatments fail. By that time, the body is already weakened, and cancer cells may have already been mutated by chemotherapy and/or radiation.
But when Khanna treats a dog with cancer, he has the option of prescribing a new drug first, and tracking a genuine response to the new treatment. The most promising trial he’s working on now—in collaboration with an Israeli startup—seeks to stop the recurrence and metastasis of osteosarcomas, common pediatric tumors. He’s hoping that within a year or two he’ll have enough data to prove the drug works. In a human trial, the same study could take longer, he says.
Despite his world-renowned stature in comparative oncology, Khanna’s medical expertise no longer holds much weight in the home he shares with his wife, Kristen, and two teenage children after he misdiagnosed oral cancer in one of the family’s dogs several years ago. “My first reaction was, ‘OK, she needs a biopsy,’ ” Khanna recalls.
His wife was skeptical and took the dog to her own vet, who diagnosed an easily treatable tooth infection. “That was it,” Khanna says, cracking a smile. “Now she doesn’t let me even cut our dog’s nails.”