A University of Illinois (U of I) research team believes that the pig may provide long-sought solutions for scientists studying breast cancer, a disease that kills half-a-million women worldwide annually.

Knowledge in understanding cancer’s molecular basis has grown exponentially, but current models for drug testing are not keeping pace.

“The failure of current animal models to predict the human response is a critical bottleneck and is likely to become the limiting factor in the development of effective new cancer therapies,” says Laurie Rund, U of I research assistant professor in animal sciences. “In order to take advantage of the advances in novel therapeutic design, we need to find a more physiological and predictive animal model for cancer.”

Rund and U of I colleague Lawrence Schook, in collaboration with Jason Chesney and principal investigator Geoff Clark of the Brown Cancer Center and University of Louisville, have been awarded a National Institutes of Health grant to develop a transgenic swine model for cancer.

The four-year project will use state-of-the-art technology to generate transgenic pigs that can be induced to lose the expression of three major tumor suppressors simultaneously in the breast.

“These genetic defects are often found in breast cancer, particularly in triple negative breast cancer,” Rund says. “Triple negative breast cancer is especially aggressive and difficult to treat. It has a high morbidity rate and affects African American women at almost three times the rate of the general population.”

Rund and her team have already discovered that it takes five to six genetic defects to convert a normal pig cell into a tumor cell, just like humans. Mouse cells, however, can be transformed into tumor cells by as little as two genetic defects.

Pigs are also similar to humans because they can live for decades and have a very low rate of spontaneous cancer, in contrast to rodent-based cancer models where lifespan is limited and the spontaneous development of cancer is high.

According to Rund this study could provide the team the opportunity to validate the pig as a superior model to study human cancer.

“If this works, we can study more types of cancer using the pig model,” Rund says. “It’s the first transgenic pig model for breast cancer that I know of, although pigs have been used extensively in biomedical research for years.”