A pharmaceutical company has selected the Animal Cancer Care Clinic, with offices in Broward and Palm Beach counties, to participate in its clinical trials for a new cancer drug for dogs.

Dogs suffering with potentially fatal skin cancer may qualify to receive expensive treatments for free through a route not often available in South Florida: a veterinary clinical drug trial.

The Animal Cancer Care Clinic, which has a hospital and two outpatient clinics in Broward and Palm Beach counties, is testing the drug Kinavet-CA1 for its manufacturer, AB Science. The oral medication has been conditionally approved for mast cell tumors, one of the most common types of canine cancers, and is being further evaluated in the latest phase 3 trial.

The Kinavet trial "is a unique opportunity, as this drug is only available in a limited amount and is very, very expensive," said Dr. Stephanie Correa, the veterinary oncologist who owns the practice. Treatments under the drug's conditional license probably would cost consumers several thousand dollars, she said.

The trial site at the clinic's Deerfield Beach location is the only one in the southeastern United States and already has enrolled several dogs. Correa hopes to ultimately sign up about 10 animals. As part of the double-blind study, some dogs will receive placebos, but Correa said additional assistance will be available for them.

While the number of small animal drug trials is growing, the vast majority are at veterinarian medicine colleges. And the University of Florida in Gainesville has the state's only vet school. Select large specialist practices also can be trial sites, however. The cancer clinic, with six locations statewide, previously has tested treatments for canine bone cancer, sarcomas and other diseases.

Cancer is the No. 1 killer of older dogs, with half of pooches older than 10 developing the disease. Six million new cases of canine cancer are diagnosed annually nationwide.

Leigha Hargett, a store manager living in Coral Springs, was stunned when she learned five months ago that the fast-growing lump on her pug Betsey's back leg was cancer. "I knew dogs could get cancer but didn't realize how common it was. It's something you don't think will happen to your dog," said Hargett, 30.

Like many people who consider their pets family, Hargett decided she would do anything to save 7-year-old Betsey. She took out a veterinary care line of credit at 26 percent interest, and considered raiding her retirement fund.

Hargett wasn't aware that clinical trials were a possibility until her primary vet mentioned the Kinavet program. She was "relieved, excited and nervous" when Betsey was accepted and started treatments in June. The tumor has shrunk noticeably "and they tell me she is getting better," Hargett said.

Opening experimental drugs testing to dog and cat owners is becoming more common, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, with more than 300 small animal clinical trials active nationwide. The public has become so interested in cutting-edge treatments for their pets that the association is exploring creating a national veterinary clinical trial registry, similar to the clinicaltrials.gov website maintained by the National Library of Medicine.

Many dogs survive mast cell tumors, which usually look like a red or inflamed lump in a dog's skin, by having them removed. Some growths are in delicate areas, like the nose, where surgery isn't an option.

"What's great is that [Kinavet] can help these animals," said Dr. Mary Gardner, a South Florida vet who co-founded the multi-state Lap of Love veterinary hospice practice in 2010. Many of her clients are dogs with cancer, and their owners are in despair, she said.

Often, they are afraid to see a veterinarian oncologist and don't know about clinical trials, said Gardner. These things "can give them a sense of hope," she said. "I would rather hand them some hope than none."

dlade@tribune.com or 954-356-4295954-356-4295

To enter Kinavet trial

Dogs must be at least 1 year old, weigh more than 15 pounds and have a mast cell tumor that is inoperable. Owners must pay for an initial exam, to determine whether the tumor meets study guidelines. There are no charges for the medication or follow-up exams if the animal qualifies. Owners must give their pet a pill daily, and come in for evaluations every two weeks for about six months.

For more information about the Kinavet drug trial at the Animal Cancer Care Clinic: 954-527-3111954-527-3111

For more on the clinic: animalcancercareclinic.com