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Vet scientist recognised for research in animal cancer


Doctor of Science Professor John Munday has investigated the crucial role of viruses as a cause of cancer in animals.


As in humans, cancer is a common cause of disease and death in animals. Veterinary scientist Professor John Munday has been awarded a prestigious Doctor of Science from Massey University for his lifelong commitment to understanding cancer in animals and how best to treat it.

His biggest discovery has been the role that viruses play in causing cancer in animals. In addition, he has developed new methods to predict how cancers will behave in animals and has been actively researching novel treatments that may potentially help animals with cancer live longer, healthier lives. 

He was awarded a Doctor of Science for his thesis; Cancer in animals: Novel causes and ways of predicting biological behaviour. It brings together 77 published manuscripts divided into three themes: the role of viruses in causing cancer in animals, non-viral factors that cause cancer in animals, and investigating novel ways to better predict whether an individual cancer will progress and spread.

Professor Munday, who graduated as a veterinarian from Massey University in 1994, started his research looking at the literature about the causes and treatment of human cancers and tried to apply some of this knowledge to the causes and treatment of cancers in animals.

“Although there are wide geographic variations, viruses cause around one in 10 of all human cancers. In contrast, far fewer cancers of animals were thought to have a viral cause. This suggested that viruses could be causing some cancers in animals without us knowing. In humans, genetic predispositions to cancer are well described. However, few such predispositions have been recognised in animals,” he says.

The role of viruses in animal cancer 

Up to a quarter of skin cancers in cats and most genital cancers in horses appear to be caused by viruses, though viruses seem to only very rarely cause cancer in dogs. 

“These are species-specific viruses and they do not spread between animals and humans,” says Professor Munday, who has collaborated with researchers at the University of Otago to create a vaccine against the virus that appeared to cause some skin cancers in cats. 

The optimum treatment for most cancers is surgical excision. However, if the cancer is invasive or has spread elsewhere in the body this may not be possible.

In a study being run in collaboration with clinicians at the Massey University Veterinary Teaching Hospital – and which has Healthy Pets New Zealand and Massey University funding support – he and fellow researchers are trying a novel drug cocktail on cats and dogs with incurable cancers. 

“The study is still in its early stages and it cannot be said whether or not the treatment is preventing cancer progression; however, promisingly there appears to be few side effects. If the study does show a good benefit in cats and dogs, this may result in the development of a new cancer therapy for animals, but also this evidence will be used to support extended trials in people,” he says.

“The new treatment could be a significant breakthrough in cancer treatment in both animals and people, as it ‘re-purposes’ older cheap medicines. Compared to conventional therapies, this novel therapy has the potential to be much cheaper, safer to administer, and associated with far fewer treatment side effects. The low price means that more animals may receive treatment for their cancers. Additionally, this may also be important in allowing greater cancer treatment options in developing countries that may struggle to afford the latest very expensive cancer treatments.”

Owners of cats with pale noses are advised to keep them out of the sun to help prevent skin cancer (photo/Alan Chen:Unsplash).


How pet owners can help prevent cancer in their animals

“As in humans, the majority of cancers in animals are simply a case of bad luck. Your body has numerous systems that means the chance of any one cell in your body becoming cancerous is extremely small. However, no system is absolutely perfect and every now and then a cell will develop exactly the wrong mutations in the DNA in exactly the wrong order. When this happens, the cell becomes out of the control of the body and forms a cancerous mass.”

However, taking simple actions can help prevent cancers from developing. For example, if you have a cat with a pale nose and ears, then keeping the cat indoors to avoid the sun is a good idea, Professor Munday recommends. 

“If you see little scabby lesions develop on their ears or nose, see your vet quickly – with all cancers, the earlier it is detected, the easier it is to treat. This is the same for lumps that develop on the skin of dogs. While the majority of skin tumors in dogs are benign, it is always better to get a diagnosis sooner rather than later. Regular check-ups at your veterinarian may also allow a cancer to be detected early. 

“Other than that, exercise and healthy eating seems like it may reduce cancer in humans. Maybe taking your dog for lots of walks will be good for the person and the dog.”

Fish, ferrets, lions and more…

As a specialist in veterinary pathology, Professor Munday has been involved in a wide range of research projects, including investigations of naturally occurring diseases in a diverse range of animals, including the more common domestic species as well as fish, seagulls, pet pigs, African lions, hamsters, ferrets, and wallabies. He has also undertaken studies investigating whether or not dietary changes can reduce the development of human diseases such as bowel cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and atherosclerosis. And he’s been involved in research focussed on detecting new, potentially harmful, toxins that can be present in shellfish. 

Professor Munday spent six years in the United States (1998-2004). During this time, he specialised in Veterinary Pathology with this speciality allowing him to become a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists. He returned to Massey in 2004 and is now a Professor of Veterinary Pathology as well as the Research Director of Tāwharau Ora - the School of Veterinary Science.

It’s no surprise he’s has been an animal lover since childhood. “Pets are such an important part of my life and the lives of so many people,” he says. “I think one thing that COVID has really illustrated is just how valuable our pets are as companions, especially in times of stress and uncertainty. My love of animals meant I wanted to be a vet from a young age, and it is a career choice that I have always enjoyed.”

Pets needed for cancer treatment study

Professor Munday is currently seeking feline and canine participants for the aforementioned study, which involves giving a combination of oral medications that aim at slowing cancer progression. 

“We are looking to enrol cats with oral or skin squamous cell carcinomas and dogs with either oral melanomas or osteosarcomas of the bone. As the animals have to be monitored carefully at the beginning of the study, the study is being run out of the Massey University Veterinary Teaching Hospital,” he explains. 

Pet owners interested can contact Professor Munday directly at j.munday@massey.ac.nz

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