Humanitas University and University of Bologna have developed a therapeutic cancer vaccine for dogs, soon available for humans too

Humanitas University, alongside the Veterinary Medical Sciences School of University of Bologna, has developed a vaccine to treat osteosarcoma in dogs.

Professor Maria Rescigno    Deputy Pro-Rector with responsibility for research at Humanitas University, coordinated the project and supervised her team’s laboratory work. The research, ongoing for over four years, is now finally paying off. “When we began working on this project, we started from the canine osteosarcoma, which is the pathology that most resembles the human one,” explains Professor Rescigno. The technology adopted by the Humanitas University team is ‘completely new’ and ‘was developed in the laboratory based on the assumption that when exposed to an infectious agent, cells exacerbate cellular stress and release signals as if they were flags responsible for activating the immune response’. Cancer cells then expose the same flags on the cell surface and become visible to the immune system.

The vaccine developed by the two universities is currently ‘tailor-made‘ for the dog selected by University of Bologna. “It is clear, however, that the ultimate goal is to create a vaccine that is unique and universal and that can be used as a therapy for the humans race,” Professor Rescigno explains. Compared to previous experiments in this field, the team in this case exploited the characteristics of a tumour cell which is already inherently stressed having undergone a transformation. “In vitro we use the salmonella bacterium, a safe bacterium which once in contact with the tumour cell triggers the release of peptides (the famous flags) typical of stress. It is precisely these peptides,” explains Rescigno, “that are being recovered and used to develop the vaccine against cancer”.

Although osteosarcoma was the first tumor to be treated with this strategy, considering the exciting results obtained, we then moved on to treating two other malignant neoplasms of the dog (melanoma and angiosarcoma), as they are very similar to the human counterpart.

Whatever cancer is treated, the vaccine is administered together with therapy considered the gold standard. For example, in the case of osteosarcoma, dogs are first amputated and treated with chemotherapy, and only then the vaccine is introduced, which has antimetastatic properties. “At the end of the vaccination protocol, we evaluate if the immune response is adequate, or if the dog requires a second vaccination course”.

The last step is the so-called immunomonitoring, i.e. the monitoring process that allows us to understand how many dogs treated with the vaccine have developed an immune response with antibodies and have therefore given a clinical response. This last step also coincides, in duration, with the trial phase: “When we finish the trial we take the last vaccination point and we see how long the immunological memory that protects the animal for a long time lasts”.

The vaccine was developed also thanks to private donations. There was one particular donator: the owner of one of the dogs the vaccination was tested and carried out on. The research allowed to extend the dog’s life by five months. “On behalf of Humanitas University and the Humanitas Foundation, I would like to thank this person because he has enabled us to carry out an ambitious but fundamental project that we are now also developing in humans thanks to funding from the AIRC foundation” Professor Rescigno concludes.


Humanitas is a highly specialized Hospital, Research and Teaching Center. Built around centers for the prevention and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular, neurological and orthopedic disease – together with an Ophthalmic Center and a Fertility Center – Humanitas also operates a highly specialised Emergency Department.