Can Human Research Improve the Diagnosis of Canine Lymphoma?


Lymphoma is one of the most common types of cancer seen in dogs; however, not all lymphomas are alike. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified dozens of different human lymphatic system cancers that fall under the umbrella term of lymphoma, and many of these cancers can also be found in dogs. Until recently, however, there was no research on whether general veterinary pathologists might be able to use the WHO human classification system to improve canine health.

The WHO classification system is a relatively new development even for human diagnostic science. Until the late 1990s, doctors in the U.S. and Europe used different techniques for identifying human lymphoma. That all changed when, in 1997, scientists found that the new WHO system was more effective at differentiating between various types of lymphatic system cancers, and it was adopted internationally. Knowing that accurate identification of cancers can improve the ability of doctors to treat them, ten years later a group of scientists from the University of Illinois set out to determine whether that same WHO classification system would work just as well for dogs.

In a study funded by the AKC Canine Health Foundation, 20 pathologists, trained on both sides of the Atlantic, were instructed in the new classification system and then given 300 specimens from 285 different dogs to see if the system would aid them in coming to a consistent diagnosis. Overall, the results were impressive. The pathologists agreed with the gold standard diagnosis 85 percent of the time. In addition, when looking at duplicate slides from the same dog, pathologists agreed with themselves 65 percent of the time.

Although the study was designed to determine whether it was feasible to train veterinary pathologists to use the WHO system of diagnosis, the researchers also discovered something that could make that task substantially easier. Of the 285 cancer biopsies submitted from 20 different states, it turned out that almost 80 percent of the lymphomas could be classified into just six types. Focusing on confident identification of the most common lymphomas could make training far more practical for most veterinary pathologists, who, in all likelihood, would only rarely have to identify any other type of lymphoma.

Accurate identification of a dog’s tumor may allow veterinarians to make better treatment choices for their lymphoma patients. Although most lymphomas are treated with similar types of chemotheraphy, proper identification of tumor type can give veterinarians and dog owners a better idea of the cancer’s likely prognosis and inform their decisions about medical care. This groundbreaking study by Dr. Ted Valli and his colleagues at the University of Illinois has not only set a new standard for testing a veterinary diagnostic classification system, it has demonstrated that the progress made in understanding and diagnosing human lymphoma can help improve the diagnosis and treatment of lymphatic cancers in dogs.

This work was funded by AKC Canine Health Foundation Grant 768.

Scientific publications:

Valli VE, Myint MS, Barthel A, et al. Classification of Canine Malignant Lymphomas According to the World Health Organization Criteria. Veterinary Pathology Online 2010.


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