Man’s Best Cure: VT scientists lead the way in cross-species cancer research

Local News

BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) – The next breakthrough in cancer research may come not from radiation, traditional chemotherapy, or even humans, for that matter.

Researchers at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM) are leading the way in comparative oncology, the study of how cancer research in dogs can aid human medicine, and vice-versa.

“We’re doing something nobody else is doing,” said Dr. Shawna Klahn, an Associate Professor of Oncology at VMCVM.

Mayo and River are a pair of star clinical subjects at VMCVM, whose successful tumor treatments may change the way we approach this area of technology.

Mayo’s owner, John Tinaglia, says she’s loyal, energetic – especially for an 11-year-old – and lives for hikes.

“She’s, like, my best friend. We do everything together,” he said.

A soft tissue sarcoma on her front leg, though, threatened to take that away, or worse.

“I was devastated when I heard that she might have to lose a leg or be put to sleep,” he said. “I would have done anything I could have done to save her.”

George and Becky Norton Dunlop, River’s owners, have a similar story concerning his liver, not leg.

“And they said ‘well, River has a tumor,'” said George.

In both cases, fortunately, their animals fit the bill for a pair of studies going on at VMCVM.

“They called and said ‘we’ve got this experiment going on and River fits the profile for the third little dog to help find a cure for cancer- or some kinds of cancer. And it was really a miracle,” said Becky.

Dr. Nick Dervisis, an Associate Professor of Oncology at VMCVM, explains that Mayo qualified for a study that essentially focuses sound waves at the area the size of a grain of rice – heating the tumor without radiation.

River qualified for a separate study that allows researchers to remove a tumor a few days after inserting a special probe.

They are both examples of ablative techniques: minimally-invasive procedures used to destroy specific tissue.

It’s somewhat uncharted territory.

“So using an ablative technique, there’s no specialty that does just that. Yet,” said Dr. Dervisis.

And the results, according to Tinaglia and the Dunlops, have been extraordinary. Mayo recovered in half the time expected, while River is back to his old self.

So you’re probably wondering why the area isn’t as well-researched as a more traditional approach, like radiation.

“Human medicine – or veterinary medicine – we tend to be conservative, so we do things how they were done and based on the literature, so it’s hard to change,” said Dr. Dervisis.

Dr. Klahn says radiation equipment and infrastructure are also hugely expensive.

“We don’t have radiation therapy here at Virginia Tech. We haven’t had radiation since the beginning, and we’ve been here since 2012. And so, what is it – necessity is the mother of invention? And so it forces you to find other ways to treat cancer,” she said.

So – without the conservative, conventional approach to rely on – VMCVM researchers became trailblazers, developing ablative techniques that have several advantages over traditional ones.

They can use their findings, techniques, and technological improvements to further human medicine, and vice-versa.

Dr. Klahn says it’s possible, in part, because of the world-class engineering program just down the street.

The college’s Comparative Oncology Research Center – or CORC, for short – is also scheduled to start seeing patients in 2020 at the VTC Biomedical Research Addition. It’ll house a wide variety of specialties under one roof – along with a more than $3 million, top-of-the-line radiation machine.

“All of these people have to come together. This isn’t a pipe dream. This isn’t, you know, an inspiration. This is a necessity. We have to do this in order to tackle these problems,” she said.

Dr. Klahn says, even with industry and private donations, there is still work to be done.

“Without those partners, it wouldn’t be possible for the college to do this. And we’re continuing to look for partners because we’re not out of the woods,” she said.

She is quick to add, though, that the medical possibilities – both for humans and animals – are limitless, with related studies on the way.

WEB EXTRA: Dr. John Rossmeisl is fighting glioblastoma in both dogs and humans, with exceptional results thus far. https://vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2017/10/univrel-cancergrant.html

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