Luke Robinson never liked dogs much until an ex-girlfriend offered him a puppy while he was living in San Antonio, Texas. The Great Pyrenees he named Malcolm changed all that.
"It was the first dog of my adult life," said Robinson, 41. "He was my companion, my mate."
But at the age of 6, Malcolm was diagnosed with bone cancer -- which both devastated and mobilized Robinson.
When a veterinarian from a major university couldn't tell Robinson why Malcolm got cancer at such young age, he went on a national crusade to "find out why."
Robinson walked 2,300 miles over two years to raise awareness, founding in the process Two Million Dogs, an organization that is a pioneer in the field of comparative research -- finding common links between animals and humans who have cancer.
Today, a $50,000 grant from the organization is funding such research at Princeton University to learn how breast cancer tumors progress from seemingly benign to malignant ones.
"We are using new model -- no one looked at progression this way," said Olga Troyanskaya, the computational biologist who is leading the genetic research. "It's something that is really out there and forward-thinking."
Troyanskaya is collaborating with Karen Sorenmo, an oncologist at the Ryan Veterinary Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, who has a special interest in mammary tumors.
The pair met when Troyanskaya's German shepherd Jessie was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2006, and she sought help from Sorenmo.
Sorenmo provides the Princeton project with tumors from shelter dogs, giving the animals free treatment. Dogs have multiple mammary glands and when they develop cancer, unlike humans, they can have multiple tumors.
"The screening is not as good, but when found, on average [dogs] have seven masses at different stages of development," said Troyanskaya. "Some are benign ... but they are not truly benign."
About 80 percent of dog and human tumors are indistinguishable, according to Two Million Dogs.
Troyanskaya compares dog and human tumors on a molecular level and hopes to find genetic markers that can give clues to how human breast cancer tumors progress and which ones are more likely to become malignant.
"We are looking at a unique model," she said. "Way more research has been done in mice ... Dogs get these tumors naturally and the physiology is more similar, the way tumors rise is similar, with the hormonal link to breast cancer in women."
Troyanskaya said she hopes to find targets for drug treatment or predict clinical outcomes in women with breast cancer and help speed up human trials.
"We can help dogs and humans," she said.
Robinson has been the visionary in this comparative research. His own journey began in 2006 when his dog Malcolm's cancer had spread to his lungs. Even medical experts at Tufts University could not explain to Robinson why such a young dog would be so sick.
"I took great care of him and learned everything about caring for a dog," he said. "I did everything I was told to do."
Malcolm died, but two years later, in 2008, the questions still gnawed at Robinson. So he dropped out of the world of finance, put all his belongings in storage and set out to walk across 16 states with two new healthy dogs, Hudson and Murphy.
"My goal was to share Malcolm's story," he said. And along the way, he consulted with veterinary experts to know why his dog died.
"I didn't have a choice," said Robinson. "He was my boy and he changed my life fundamentally. Some people continue on the same course. For me, it was life-defining."
In 2010, he set up Two Million Dogs, believing that dogs, who live in the same environment as humans, can give clues to why humans get cancer.
"They are like the canary in the coal mines -- we drink the same water," said Robinson.
Today, Robinson is still homeless and jobless, but a tireless advocate for comparative research.
The organization he founded for sponsors is called "Puppy-Up Walks" -- similar to the fundraising efforts for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation and hosted in in 40 cities around the country.
Sadly, Robinson's Great Pyrenees, Murphy, died of nasal cancer in June. And now, the man who never thought he would fall in love with a dog has a new puppy, Indiana.
"Before," he said of Malcolm, "I didn't know I could have a spiritual connection with an animal."
- breast cancer