From humble beginnings on a dairy farm in Israel, Dr Noam Pik is on the brink of a major canine cancer breakthrough while also pioneering personalised medicine for pets. By Shane Conroy
“One night was never the same,” recalls Dr Noam Pik, referring to his days doing emergency surgery at vet hospitals in Victoria. His passion for high-pressure work, however, became even more apparent when he took on his current position—as a canine cancer pioneer.
Now the CEO of Orivet Genetic Pet Care, Dr Pik is both trialling a revolutionary new cancer treatment and helping pioneer personalised medicine for dogs and cats, in the process driving a new focus on genetics in Australia’s veterinary industry.
So, how did an Israeli-born veterinarian become an Australian leader in his medical field? In 2008, Dr Pik left the veterinary hospitals to open a specialised vet pathology lab—this was when human pathology labs were doing most of the work for vets.
“I was approached by a group that was doing cancer research to see if we could do one of the tests that was required for their research,” he says. “Nobody could do that test at the time, so we had to find a way. I became a consultant in that project and later took a more hands-on approach running the cancer trial.”
It was a revolutionary trial that was investigating immune system involvement in cancer treatment. The firm’s scientific team essentially discovered that the immune system works in a cycle, and if a low chemotherapy dose is administered at exactly the right time, it may be effective in allowing the body’s own immune system to destroy cancer cells.
In the 12-month first-stage trial, cancer-affected dogs underwent blood tests every second day for a period of three weeks so researchers could understand the individual immune system cycle of each patient. Then a single low-dose chemotherapy pill was administered at the optimal time to attack the cells that suppress the immune system’s natural cancer-fighting ability while they are at their most vulnerable. This is thought to enable the immune system to kill cancer cells much more effectively, while sparing the patient the toxic side effects of high-dose chemotherapy.
The first stage trial was conducted at 20 veterinary clinics around Australia and the USA and achieved promising results with several cancer-affected dogs making full recoveries. Planning for a second-stage trial is underway, and—pending its successful completion—Dr Pik believes the cancer treatment could be on the market in two to five years. However, he’s quick to point out there remains several hurdles to jump.
“We have to monitor the first-stage patients for a long time to ensure the cancer doesn’t return before we can make any real claims. We can say that right now the tumour is no longer there, but if it comes back six months or a year later, we can’t call it a complete response,” he says.
“The second-stage trial is going to be more focused on two types of cancers so we can document more stringent protocols before we go ahead with the registration of an actual treatment product. However, the results to date are very encouraging and we certainly see this research as a stepping stone to human trials.
“If it’s going to work, it will save lives and will do away with the normal chemotherapy we use now, which is very taxing on people and animals. It’s definitely going to be revolutionary.”
Steep learning curve
Dr Noam Pik has come a long way since growing up on his family’s dairy farm in Israel, yet it was his early years spent with cows and horses that ignited his passion for veterinary care.
After completing his compulsory army service in Israel, the young aspiring vet packed his bags and headed for Australia. He spent a year traveling around the country before settling in Perth where he studied veterinary science at Murdoch University.
He describes that time as a fun transition that came with a steep learning curve, and it wasn’t long before he headed for the east coast after graduation. He accepted a job at an equine practice in Melbourne and worked on track with racehorses for about three years.
“We were on Flemington and Caulfield almost every day, working with all the famous trainers and horses,” he says. “Horses aren’t like dogs and cats when they are sick. It’s almost always an emergency, and the owners are very demanding so it’s a high-pressure environment.”
So high pressure, in fact, that Dr Pik almost missed the birth of his first child. “My wife was having a baby and I was out with a horse with colic. I couldn’t leave the horse and I barely made it to the birth of my first child,” he says. “My wife said to me, ‘Well, that’s it, no more horses’. So I moved on to a general practice.”
That was Dandenong Veterinary Hospital and The Animal Emergency Centre in Mt Waverley, and it was during this time that Dr Pik fell in love with emergency and critical care medicine.
A new direction
Before long, the visionary vet and his group of colleagues left to start their own emergency centre in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs—now called the South Eastern Animal Emergency Centre.
“If we can stop a disease from impacting negatively on a pet’s life then we have done our job. That’s what gets us up in the morning.”—Dr Noam Pik, CEO, Orivet Genetic Pet Care
“It was very rewarding. One night was never the same as the other. You feel that you’re actually saving lives and making a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “Again, it’s a high-pressure environment but I liked working as part of a team to save an animal.”
Emergency medicine was just the beginning in Dr Pik’s career-long quest to save animals. After opening a specialised veterinary pathology lab, he became CEO of Orivet to take on the major cancer treatment breakthrough.
You’d think that potentially curing cancer would be the triumphant exclamation point on even the most glittering career. Not so for Dr Pik. As CEO of Orivet Genetic Pet Care, he’s also pioneering personalised medicine for cats and dogs via genetic testing.
“I’ve always loved genetics and I think the potential for using genetics to impact pets’ lives is tremendous,” he says.
“I think our profession at the moment is heavily focused on fixing problems rather than keeping pets healthy, so our mission is to use genetic testing and big data to identify risk and manage that risk throughout the pet’s life to keep them healthy.”
Genetic testing underpins Orivet’s approach to preventive healthcare and the company has helped develop and validate some new genetic tests alongside those that were already available, says Dr Pik.
“What we have done well is bring them all together with new technologies that allow us to run a lot of the tests on the one sample. That has involved acquiring licences and working with many partners. The other thing we have pioneered—and we are the only company in the world with this technology—is to look at a breed of dog and then create a risk analysis for the genetic diseases that a dog might develop throughout its life.
“For example, German shepherds might be predisposed to 100 different genetic diseases. But which ones are likely in a specific dog? That’s where our algorithm comes into it. We can tell you which genetic diseases a specific dog is likely to develop based on its breed, age, weight, sex, geographic location and lifestyle.”
Dr Pik explains that highlighting the inherited risks allows the company to create personalised care plans for the individual patient. “Orivet is not just a genetic company; it is a personalised medicine company,” he says. “It’s about finding out what can happen with that dog or cat, and then building a personalised life plan for that individual.”
And this is technology that Australian vets can offer their clients right now. Vets need to simply register on the Orivet website to receive testing kits they can use to collect DNA samples.
“Vets can order a test for any dog or cat and they will get a fully customisable Life Plan™ with a schedule of what to screen for at what age,” explains Dr Pik.
“Early diagnosis often means better management and more treatment options which can save money for the pet owner because they can get an outcome without necessarily having to go to surgery or finding themselves in a dire situation.
“It’s the same with humans. If you know you have a family history of prostate cancer, you are going to go out and get yourself checked early. For us, the breed is like the family history.
“The breed gives us a lot of information, so why not use that information? And combining breed data with lifestyle factors, age, weight and gender allows us to hone in on the most important health risks we need to be concerned with.
“If we can stop a disease from impacting negatively on a pet’s life then we have done our job. That’s what gets us up in the morning.”