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U of M study asks whether evolutionary success might explain some cancers

A recent study out of the Masonic Cancer Center and University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine looks at whether humans and dogs, both susceptible to cancer, are outliving the capacity of their natural cancer protective mechanisms, creating an elevated risk of cancer and an excess of deaths by cancer.

The collaborative research effort, led by Masonic Cancer members Jaime Modiano, VMD, PhD, Perlman Professor of Oncology and Comparative Medicine, Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, and Aaron Sarver, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Institute of Health Informatics, was recently published in Aging and Cancer

Most people think that cancer is a consequence of bad lifestyle choices, but the research team, which also includes Kelly Makielski, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM; Ashley Schulte (Research tech); and Taylor DePauw (Research tech and graduate student in the MICAB program), reframes this concept and concludes that some or most of the excess cancer incidence and cancer mortality seen in humans and dogs is actually an unintended consequence of our success. 

The study looks to determine if an excess of cancer is going to occur in patients because we outlive our cancer protective mechanisms, i.e. live longer than nature intended. If so, then a logical approach is to identify the individuals that are at greatest risk and develop interventions that can alter that risk. The team is currently doing this with dogs as proof of concept, which can subsequently be developed for humans.

“The fact that elephants and sharks get cancer is no more remarkable than the fact that cancer in these (and most) species is presumed to be rare over their lifetimes,” noted Dr. Modiano. “When we consider that the evolutionarily-adapted lifespan for humans was about 40-45 years, and for dogs it was 3-½ to 4 years, we see that the occurrence of cancer in both species over those lifespans are no greater than what is seen in other animals.”

“Working on this project has reframed the way I think about tumor evolution,” added Dr. Sarver. “The evolution of the tumor, which is essentially a dead end, has to be considered in competition with conserved and non-conserved tumor control mechanisms that have evolved and been passed down through evolutionary time to prevent tumorigenesis creating species specific barriers that humans and dogs are now outliving.” 

The team will work to develop tests that allow for a determination of whether emerging cancers are present in patients, or where there is high risk of those cancers emerging. Then, if an emerging cancer can be detected or when there is high risk, to intervene with a solution (drug or strategy) that either delays or reverses that cancer process or alters the risk. 

“So, we can't change evolution and we don't want to shorten lifespans, but for our immediate next steps, we are working to do something about reducing the cancer burden in our canine and human populations,” added Dr. Modiano.

About the Masonic Cancer Center

The Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, is the Twin Cities’ only Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated ‘Outstanding’ by the National Cancer Institute. As Minnesota’s Cancer Center, we have served the entire state for more than 25 years. Our researchers, educators, and care providers have worked to discover the causes, prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer and cancer-related diseases. Learn more at

About the Institute for Health Informatics

Established in 1965, the Institute for Health Informatics (IHI) educates students and conducts research in the fields of biomedical and health informatics. IHI focuses on the design, use, and evaluation of information systems that support and improve healthcare while protecting the safety and confidentiality of those who receive that care. Learn more at

About the College of Veterinary Medicine

The University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine affects the lives of animals and people every day through educational, research, service, and outreach programs. Established in 1947, the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine is Minnesota’s only veterinary college. Fully accredited, the college has graduated over 4,000 veterinarians and hundreds of scientists. The college is also home to the Veterinary Medical Center, the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, the Leatherdale Equine Center and The Raptor Center. To learn more, visit