Updated: Apr 26
The world of pet medical treatments is advancing at an unprecedented pace. This rapid development comes from a combination of factors, including advancements in computer science and power, advances in human medicine that can be transferred to pets, and new disease treatment methods. If you’ve followed the news over the last few years, you’ve seen the MRNA pathway used in novel vaccines and other medical technologies.
You may also have heard about cancer treatments using vaccines rather than traditional radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, and steroids.
When a beloved canine companion is diagnosed with cancer, it can be a devastating event in the life of pet owners. As a veterinary professional, it’s your responsibility to be able to offer the best possible options for treatment, keeping in mind various factors like the age of the dog, the type of cancer, and the efficacy of available treatments.
The traditional treatment options for canine cancers usually involve chemotherapy, radiation, or both.
However, other treatments may be available, such as Torigen. What is Torigen, and is it better than traditional treatments? What are the pros and cons? Let’s dig in!
Chemotherapy and Radiation
First, it’s worth clearing up a common misconception: chemotherapy and radiation are not the same things, though they are often used in conjunction with one another.
Chemotherapy is a drug therapy, usually injected with IV (though in dogs, oral/chewable chemotherapy administration is possible), with a variety of different mechanisms. For example, some chemotherapy drugs prevent the dog’s body from being able to create more blood vessels. This doesn’t necessarily hurt the rest of the dog’s body, but cancer cells need to grow their own vessels to get blood to survive; without that new growth, the cancer cells can’t replication and grow.
Other kinds of chemotherapy attack cancer cells directly or can even be broad-spectrum cytotoxic chemicals that kill anything they go through and rely on cancer’s voracious appetite to kill cancer before they kill the host.
Radiation therapy, meanwhile, uses high-energy radiation like X-rays to focus on tumors and kill them.
Careful aiming with precise technology is required to avoid doing more harm than good.
Radiation and chemotherapy are often used in conjunction with one another because they don’t interfere with each other, and they both attack cancer cells in different ways.
However, they aren’t the only ways that cancer can be treated.
In dogs, two other standard cancer treatments include steroids and surgery. Surgery is generally used on non-aggressive cancers that are formed in isolated tumors that can be removed without undue harm to the dog.
Steroids are used for their effects on the immune system, which can provide short-term remission, but are often ineffective long-term. As such, they’re more often used in conjunction or as a follow-up to other treatments.
There’s a lot more we could talk about here, but that’s a matter for another post. If you have specific questions, feel free to drop us a line or leave a comment below.
What is Torigen?
Torigen is the name of a company providing a new kind of therapy for cancer based on developments in human cancer treatment. It’s immunotherapy, and it’s a powerful new technique that is showing great results in humans and animals.
To understand how it works, you need to understand two things: how cancer works and how the immune system works. We’ll cover both in brief here, but fair warning: it’s very complex, and we’re simplifying it a lot. You can read more about it on the FDA's website, medical journals and cancer resources.
Cancer starts when the DNA of a given cell mutates. Now, often, when DNA mutates, it makes the cell no longer viable, and one of three things happens:
The cell dies, and nothing further happens. This happens all the time to every living thing.
The DNA damage is repaired, which is a remarkable process.
The cell mutates. The mutation removes the cell’s naturally programmed cell death (apoptosis) and its limitations on replication.
That third possibility leads the cell to replicate itself, mutations and all; more and more mutations, more and more growth, and no programmed cell death, all combined to create uncontrolled growth in tissue. Moreover, this tissue isn’t serving a purpose other than replicating itself. It’s not as though a dog with liver cancer grows an extra liver; it just has uncontrolled replication of liver cells that do nothing other than replicate themselves.
Part of what makes cancer so dangerous is that it’s basically made up of the host’s own body, so the dog (or person) doesn’t have a viable systemic response to it. Your immune system doesn’t attack your own body!
If it did, it would do all kinds of terrible things. That’s what autoimmune diseases are.
An immune system is a learning machine. When it is exposed to a new pathogen or contagion, it identifies specific elements of that pathogen, develops a way to fight it, and sets about destroying it.
This happens all the time whenever the body is exposed to germs. Most of the time, it’s rapid and efficient, and the pathogen is destroyed with no adverse effects. Other times it takes longer and an infection or illness like a cold takes hold before the body can fight it off. Sometimes medication is necessary to help suppress the pathogen and enhance the immune system, like antibiotics.
Well, the immune system can be trained. By introducing an inert, specialized variation of a pathogen, usually coupled with something that triggers the immune system (called an adjuvant), the immune system is able to identify an invader and prepare a response even though the “real” pathogen isn’t present.
This is how vaccines work.
A vaccine introduces a denatured, dead, or simulated version of a pathogen, trains the immune system to fight it, and thus prepares the body for the real thing.
Well, modern medical science has learned that this can be done with more than just bacteria and viruses.
Immunotherapy is a way to create a vaccine for a specific kind of cancer that the body would normally ignore, forcing it to develop an immune response and fight off that cancer.
This is very useful and effective because cancer can come back if even a single cell is left behind.
It’s why cancer surgeries take so many non-cancerous cells from around a tumor and why radiation and chemotherapy are so broadly targeted. Leaving any cancer behind means it can come back.
This is also why, when cancer comes back, it’s often not in the same place as the previous tumor.
The original site is cleansed, but cells that migrated elsewhere in the body (often through the lymphatic system) can crop up elsewhere as metastases.
Immunotherapy trains the body to identify and fight cancer at the microscopic level anywhere it crops up, providing a more thorough and comprehensive defense and treatment from cancer.
That’s what Torigen is; immunotherapy for cancer in dogs, as well as cats and horses.
How the Torigen Process Works
Torigen is a company that works with veterinarians, not directly with pet owners. As a vet, you need to decide if offering Torigen services is right as part of your treatment options. Here’s how it works.
First, you have to have a dog that you diagnose with cancer. You don’t necessarily need to know it’s cancer, just that it’s a cell mass; Torigen can provide histopathology in addition to their services, or you can get pathology from other consultancies like Vidium or FidoCure. In fact, Torigen works with a variety of pathology services, one of which is Vidium.
At this point, you either order a kit from Torigen or use one you have on hand if you’ve worked with Torigen before. You perform surgery to remove the tumor, pack it up according to Torigen’s instructions (critically, don’t fix it in formalin), and send it to them. Torigen needs at least 2-5 grams of non-necrotic tissue to use for their process, so small tumors may not be appropriate.
Torigen will perform their analysis and develop customized immunotherapy for the patient. This is essentially a custom vaccine for that dog and that dog alone, made out of their own tissue and their own cancer, for highly targeted effects.
The vaccine is administered through a subcutaneous shot once every seven days for three weeks, so three total doses. This is generally enough to stimulate the patient’s immune system into generating a response, then kicking into high gear to fight off any remaining cancer throughout their body and any recurrences of that specific cancer.
Note that Torigen mostly only works with solid tumors like Osteosarcoma, so cancers like lymphoma and osteosarcoma require a special consultation first.
Which is Better: Torigen or Radiation and Chemotherapy?
Radiation and chemotherapy are traditional treatments for cancer. As such, they’re less precise and potentially harsher on the body. Unlike the traditional representations of a cancer patient in media – fatigue, weight loss, hair loss, and so on – the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation on dogs is a bit different. Side effects can include lethargy, decreased appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea. This is rare, so we'll change the patient's plan if we encounter those side effects.
Both chemo and radiation therapy work to kill cancer faster, and the goal is to balance the right degree of treatment to send cancer into remission or kill it entirely before it has a chance to damage the patient's health.
Vaccine-based immunotherapies are generally better in terms of side effects. Since they’re simply triggering the immune system, they only cause side effects similar to any other time an immune flare-up occurs, like fever and fatigue. They aren’t cytotoxic or radioactive and don’t have the same sort of safety procedures and precautions that chemo and radiation require.
Torigen is less hard on the body, more customized for the patient, and often less expensive than a full regimen of radiation therapy and chemotherapy. This makes it a potentially excellent alternative to traditional treatments for many – though not all – canine cancers.
Torigen provides an easier, more comfortable, higher quality-of-life treatment option than radiation and chemotherapy.
Torigen clinical trials have shown promising results and an increased survival rate in patients, whether with surgery or with both surgery and chemotherapy.
If the treatment is effective, it can also help prevent the reoccurrence of disease because the immune system is primed to stop it before mutated cells turn into tumors.
In some cases, Torigen may be a better option for a patient. It's very case dependant; the type and stage of cancer and other treatments can all affect the outcome.
There’s one additional twist here: Torigen is not exclusive to radiation and chemotherapy. Vets can offer, and pet owners can accept, a combination of the two. Radiation and chemotherapy can be used in conjunction with Torigen to help ensure as comprehensive a treatment as possible for canine cancers.
Providing the Best Options for Your Patients
As a vet, your goal is to provide a range of different treatment options for your clients and their pets. Different pet owners have different concerns, so providing an array of treatment options, including inexpensive options, highly effective options, and options that simply increase the quality of life for as long as possible, are all valid to offer.
The more tools you have in your arsenal, the better equipped you are to provide these options.
Torigen is one such option you can offer, and all you need to do is contact the Torigen company to obtain kits and learn how to take and submit samples.
In addition to Torigen, you can also build relationships with other consultants. At Hope Veterinary Special Services, we’re always available to help provide advice and specialized consulting for a variety of issues.
We know that you aren’t always trained in every specialty and that your role isn’t to know everything; it’s to know who to talk to. As a front-line care provider, if you have tricky emergency care issues, dermatology problems, cancers, neurological issues, or other complex patients to handle, it can be difficult to know what to do. Rather than take a shot in the dark, contact us, and our experts can provide advice on the best avenues to take and offer your patients. Just click here to learn more and get started!