The Animal Health Trust, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge is going to conduct new research to enable the creation of a blood test to identify Flatcoated Retrievers with early stage histiocytic sarcoma.

The charity says that although histiocytic sarcoma is rare, it is an aggressive form of cancer which Flatcoated Retrievers are particularly susceptible to. 

According to the AHT, almost half of all affected Flat-coated Retrievers will have a tumour in multiple locations in the body at the time of diagnosis. The outlook for these dogs is very poor and, in most cases, means they receive a terminal diagnosis.

The new research revolves around microRNAs, abnormal levels of which are often found in tumours. In addition, different microRNAs are involved in different cancers. These cancer-specific microRNA signatures can be found within the blood of cancer patients, meaning that a tumour could potentially be diagnosed with a blood test.

To start with, the researchers say they plan to confirm if there is a specific microRNA signature that is unique to histiocytic sarcomas amongst tumours and normal tissue samples from Flatcoated Retrievers. If a signature is identified, the project will investigate if measuring the levels of these microRNAs within a Flatcoated Retriever tissue sample can be used to accurately identify a histiocytic sarcoma. If it can, additional funding will be sought for more research to identify if the microRNA signature is also detectable in the blood of affected dogs, and thence to develop a blood test. 

If it comes off, this would mean that a blood sample from a Flatcoated Retriever that was lame, or was showing non-specific clinical signs of the disease such as depression, lethargy, appetite or weight loss, could be tested for the presence of the histiocytic sarcoma-associated microRNAs.

A dog with a positive test result could then have an early MRI scan and histopathology done to confirm the diagnosis, hopefully at a stage where treatment would be more successful. 

Dr Anna Hollis, cancer researcher at the Animal Health Trust, said: "I have Flatcoated Retrievers and have lost one of them to histiocytic sarcoma - it is absolutely devastating. This research could make a significant difference, and that is a huge personal motivation for me. Histiocytic sarcoma is a particularly tricky cancer to diagnose, because the tumours are frequently located deep within or between the muscles of the upper limbs - underneath the shoulder is a common location.

"Often lame dogs are rested and given pain relief before imaging is sought. Delayed diagnosis is a potential problem with histiocytic sarcoma given its aggressive nature and ability to spread rapidly to other locations within the body. If we could identify affected dogs at an earlier stage, this may allow more successful treatment of the disease."

The research project has been funded by the Flatcoated Retriever Society (FCRS) and the FCRS Rescue, Rehousing and Welfare Scheme. The Flatcoated Retriever Breed Health Co-ordinator, Liz Branscombe, said "Sadly, there is a high incidence of this aggressive form of cancer in our beautiful breed. Early detection of the disease is key in optimising cancer treatment and prolonging survival time so the prospect of a diagnostic blood test for use in the future is exciting.'

Photo: Liz Branscombe, Dr Mike Starkey and Dr Anna Hollis of AHT and Brian Jones of FCRS Rescue, Rehousing and Welfare.

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