Prominent Veterinarians Wary of $599 Petco Cancer Test

June 28, 2021 This story has been updated.

Petco (NASDAQ: WOOF) is getting into the pet cancer business.

For $599 per test, a Petco spokesperson told TCR this week, dog owners can now find out, well, not much.

At least, that’s what seems to be the consensus of veterinarians TCR reached for comment.

Thirty-one select “full-service” Petco veterinary clinics around the continental U.S. are now offering Petco’s OncoK9 cancer tests, touted as “a groundbreaking multi-cancer early detection test for dogs,” in a May 18 Petco press release. However, the announcement made no mention of the $599 price tag for the “groundbreaking” product.  In fact, as far as we know, this is the first time the price of the test is being reported.

Other tests for disease threats – such as the Cologuard screening for possible colon cancer in humans – routinely provide accuracy and error percentages in all marketing language and communications.

Asked what the accuracy rate was for OncoK9, Dr. Daniel Grosu, MD, the founder, president, and CEO of the test’s developer, PetDx, said, “OncoK9 detects approximately 50% of cancer cases when used as a screening test at a single time point.” Dr. Grosu declined to specify the false positive rate — the percentage of tests that will result inaccurately in an indication of cancer.

Reached Tuesday afternoon, one leading veterinary oncologist declined to be named but had this to say:

“I’m happy to do an interview once they have a scientific publication,” he said. “My problem is that they have nothing published yet.”

Another prominent veterinary oncologist offered:

“What is often referred to as a scientific publication is probably one that presents the methods, materials, and the new data generated from those methods.” He added that this kind of publication “then discusses the importance and interpretation of the data. We do not have that type of paper for the OncoK9 test.”

A Petco spokesperson who asked not to be named would not comment specifically about the absence of research when asked about the points made by veterinarians, telling TCR in an email: “Through our partnership with PetDx, we’re proud to offer OncoK9 at our full-service vet hospitals in select locations, allowing Petco veterinarians, for the first time ever, to detect a variety of cancer types in dogs with a simple blood draw. Recommended as an annual screening test and aid in the diagnosis, OncoK9 is a significant step forward in preventative veterinary medicine, and PetDx is continuing to gather and publish compelling data in support of the test.”

Dr. Jaime Modiano is arguably more knowledgeable and in a unique position to comment about OncoK9’s claims than most. An expert in cancer biology and pathology, he directs one of the world’s most renowned veterinary cancer research programs. “I am excited about the activity that is going on in the space of canine diagnostics,” Dr. Jaime Modiano, professor of oncology and comparative medicine at the University of Minnesota told TCR in an email, “but I have some reservations about the test based on what I have seen,” he added. Dr. Modiano, also the director of the Animal Cancer Care and Research Program, noted that he has not seen the company’s data, nor was he a board-certified veterinary oncologist and, in fact, may be in a sense, involved in a potential Petco competitor:

“My postgraduate specialty clinical training was in pathology,” he noted. “I have been active in research studying cancer biology, pathogenesis, immunology, and diagnostic and therapeutic development or about 35 years. For the past 14, I have led a program at the U of M that is at the forefront of these areas. And we are developing tests in the same diagnostic space at the U of M, and specifically in my lab.” Dr. Modiano offered his thoughts about OncoK9 in a commentary that was published in The VMC Pulse, an internal newsletter at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center:

There is a lot of activity in this area, but there are a couple of questions people need to ask—and answer —before the developers release these tests and providers and pet owners use them.

The first question is, what does the test tell us? …Does the test measure the actual presence of cancer, or some form of risk? Does it differentiate among the many possible cancer types? What are the rates of false positives and false negatives, and how does that affect the next interventions?

The second question is, what does the test allow you to do differently? The simple knowledge that a dog has cancer is not really actionable. Without a reasonable intervention to change the course of the cancer, the only thing that it does (besides costing the client money) is introducing stress to the owner…If the next step is costly whole-body imaging to see where the tumor is, then the question is whether the test is helping at all, right?

It is true that knowledge is power, but sometimes when knowledge creates powerlessness, it leads to poor decision-making.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for developing this type of testing, and we are doing so in our group—vigorously. At the same time, we are developing solutions—making sure that every test we propose to release has a clear set of recommendations or actions that can alter the ultimate outcome.

I believe that the health care community (peer scientists, veterinarians, and also physicians) owe it to our patients and our clients to be aware of these important questions and demand proper answers before we encourage people to go blindly down a path that may not lead to the expected outcomes.

Petco and PetDx are eager to present action plans and offer their ideas to veterinarians. However, they’ve also declined to allow TCR to observe this exchange of information first-hand:

On Friday, June 25, Petco and PetDx are hosting a webinar for veterinary oncologists to afford them the opportunity to ask questions, including about what the company recommends oncologists do when presented with the tests from clients.

TCR learned of the webinar through a renowned – and, like the other veterinarians we reached out to, skeptical — boarded veterinary oncologist. He suggested that we observe the webinar for our reporting as it would afford first-hand accounts of the company’s representations to the veterinary industry. Indeed, the purpose of this webinar is to give veterinarians the opportunity to ask questions, including the question of how a veterinary oncologist is advised to proceed when approached with a “positive” test result for something that screens for at least seven different types of cancers.

What better way for a reporter interested in conveying these issues to dog owners to present the potential positive and negatives of this important, than to hear this informed Q&A first hand?

Petco isn’t just asking customers for $599 per test. Petco is hoping to charm veterinarians into condoning the tests. According to an oncologist who received an invitation, webinar invitations contained stickers and stationery. Beyond the swag, there’s the messaging, which Dr. Grosu discussed in a series of emails with TCR intended to explain his and Petco’s decision to close the webinar to an industry reporter.

(Petco CEO Ron Coughlin also did not answer questions seeking comment about the decision to deny an industry reporter access to a widely publicized product post-launch webinar.)

“These are scientifically and clinically complex topics,” PetDx’s Grosu told TCR in one of several lengthy emails intended to explain why TCR would not have access to the webinar. “We need to ensure the accuracy of the messaging,” he continued, “by delivering the content directly, or by going through highly specialized channels that have the appropriate level of expertise (such as peer-reviewed journals that can appoint reviewers who have formal training in veterinary oncology and subordinated topics such as cancer epidemiology, genomics, and screening).”

Here’s more from another of the three rejection notes from PetDx:

“As all companies that take their public image and messaging seriously, PetDx uses a PR agency that handles media inquiries, schedules calls, provides in-call support, etc. This is similar to our use of a Legal firm to ensure our Legal matters are handled appropriately, or our use of an Accounting firm to ensure that our financial matters are managed correctly.

We have had a number of engagements over the past few weeks with high-profile media outlets including CNET, GenomeWeb, San Diego Union Tribune, Veterinary Practice News, etc. They were all managed by Lewis, our PR agency. From your representation below, it would seem that you are managing a reputable media organization and have extensive personal experience in the field; as such, I am sure that you will understand and respect our process.

The webinar is offered exclusively to veterinary oncologists as a “peer-to-peer” presentation, and is not intended to be a press conference or a source of information for media stories.  If you have a veterinary oncologist on your staff, they may register to attend.

Our website (especially the Resources section) and press releases (including the one issued by Petco) provide a wealth of information about the science and the clinical utility of our test.”

Here’s what another veterinarian had to say about the new test on his popular blog, The Skept Vet:

“It is really never a good sign when a miraculous new breakthrough in veterinary medicine is announced on the internet. That isn’t where true scientific breakthroughs show up. Legitimate science is a slow, detailed process where even brilliant, revolutionary ideas have to go through a long, rigorous process of critique and exploration before they are accepted. Public relations press announcements are about making money and generating hype, not about exploring good science.

It is even less inspiring of confidence when the supposed breakthrough is offered by a person or institution with a track record of promoting pseudoscience.

In the case of OncoK9 Liquid Biopsy, such red flags abound. Press announcements with hyperbolic language like “pioneering,” “revolution,” and “breakthrough innovation” are not only meaningless but outright misleading when the only evidence offered to support them is a company study that supposedly “will be submitted for publication in a leading peer-reviewed journal” someday. Legitimate science does not start with press releases and then move to possible publication in the scientific literature.”

One part of Petco’s email to TCR appeared to address the decision to restrict the webinar to veterinarians: “Educational opportunities for veterinarians and vet support staff will be offered by PetDx as the company continues to grow,” the Petco spokesperson told TCR in an email. “As part of our mission to improve the lives of pets, Petco remains committed to helping veterinarians detect and diagnose cancer early, so pets have a better chance of becoming survivors.”

Finally, the spokesperson added, “While Petco does not yet have a vet hospital at 860 Broadway in New York City,” the spokesperson continued responding to our request for the exact price of a test at the company’s largest Manhattan location, “OncoK9 is $599 at our nearest vet hospital located at 1610 Ave. Y, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11235.”

TCR is republishing the following with Dr. Jaime Modiano’s permission.