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Pack-leading oncologist: Kristy Richards

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Kristy Richards, M.D., Ph.D., was recently featured in Ezra Magazine. Read the full feature here.

Kristy Richards, M.D., Ph.D.Kristy Richards, M.D., Ph.D. When Dr. Kristy Richards first told people she was looking at pet dogs as part of her cancer research, she'd get a lot of blank looks. "I'd tell my M.D. colleagues what I was doing, and they'd go, '… what?'" she says. Fortunately, the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine recognized a visionary when they saw one, recruiting Richards in 2015 to head up their nascent comparative cancer program. Now, Richards' research creates buzz rather than bafflement.

Richards, an oncologist, studies lymphoma, a common cancer in humans and the most common cancer in dogs. Her plan is to recruit canine lymphoma patients (pets, not research animals) to veterinary clinical trials to test potential treatments – and then, in collaboration with her colleagues at Weill Cornell Medicine, apply that knowledge in human lymphoma patients.

Richards plans to test cutting-edge approaches such as immunotherapy, which harnesses the body's natural defenses to fight off cancer cells, in dogs suffering from lymphoma. This September, she was awarded a supplement grant from the National Cancer Institute, in partnership with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, to further explore canine immunotherapy with veterinary patients that come to the Cornell University Hospital for Animals.Dog and human lymphoma patients share many biological similarities, as well as the unfortunate fact that rates of the disease are rising for both species. "We don't know why this is," Richards says. "It could be something in the environment, which both dogs and humans share. So in a way, dogs could be a canary in the coal mine."

It's an exciting alternative to the current model for new drug development, which, for each new drug, takes an average of 15 years, costs $2.6 billion and has a mere 7 percent success rate. "We can't afford to spend this kind of time and money to test potential drugs," says Richards. "Veterinary trials are an untapped resource – we have a really powerful tool to advance these therapies much more rapidly and efficiently – plus, we can find cures for both dogs and humans at the same time."

In many ways, Richards and Cornell have been a match made in heaven. Richards was one of the only M.D.s in the country doing comparative oncology in dogs, which made her the perfect person to head the comparative cancer program. For Richards, Cornell's well-established reputation of excellence in lymphoma research made the admiration mutual. "When they asked me to come to bridge the gap between human and canine research, and work with all my favorite lymphoma people – I said of course. It's been a total win-win situation."