Woody was rescued from an abusive owner when he was just a puppy. Adopted by Mari McGovern and her family, the gentle Golden Retriever was able to blossom on their ranch in the Willamette Valley, and his difficult start in life was followed by many happy years of kids, Frisbees, and exploring the forest.
Then in 2010, Woody was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer that is more common in dogs than people. McGovern’s vet referred her to the oncology unit at the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH). There, doctors told her that, in order to stop the spread of the cancer, Woody’s left rear leg would have to be amputated. They were heartbroken, and to make things worse, it was just a few days before Christmas. “They took him in on Christmas eve and performed the surgery that saved his life,” says McGovern.
When her family returned to the hospital on Christmas day to see how Woody was recovering, they were amazed when he came running out with his usual happy face!
Osteosarcoma is challenging to treat, in both humans and dogs (it tends to resist chemotherapy), so Woody’s prognosis was not great: another year at best. Fortunately, the VTH had just agreed to collaborate on a research project on osteosarcoma that offered more hope for Woody.
Developed by Drs. Charles Keller and Lara Davis at the Oregon Health & Science University, the Osteosarcoma Research Project enrolls OSU dogs for clinical trials of a new approach to treatment: Instead of choosing chemotherapy drugs based on a best guess of what would work, doctors took a sample of Woody’s cancer cells and sent them to OHSU where a large selection of the latest cancer drugs were tested on cell cultures developed from his tissue. The drug that had the biggest impact was selected for Woody.
“We try to increase the chances of hitting the right drug at the start, rather than doing a shotgun approach, “ says VTH Dr. Shay Bracha. “Before, if you had 100 patients with osteosarcoma, they would all get the same drug because the assumption was that bone cancer all behaves the same. But we know for many years now that the cancer of each individual is very different.”
Usually the average survival time for a dog diagnosed with osteosarcoma is about a year. Woody lived for nearly three years. When you consider that this is one-fifth of a dog’s life span, it was quite a dramatic result and very inspiring for the doctors collaborating on the project. “It was an impressive remission,” says Bracha.
In his favor, Woody’s disease was diagnosed before there were signs of cancer in his lungs. This rarely happens; by the time most dogs see a vet, x-rays show the osteosarcoma has spread to the lungs. This was the case for another patient in the osteosarcoma study: a big, furry German Shepard named Nuit.
Nuit is currently receiving the same personalized treatment that Woody had, but Nuit already showed tumors in his lungs by the time he came to the VTH. He was given a matched drug and in less than a year, two of the masses in his lungs had disappeared completely. “Usually, when you can see lung masses, the progression of the disease is very fast – three months and they are dead,” says Bracha. “He is a year out and doing fantastic.” In fact, last month his x-ray was completely clear.
Most of the dogs in the osteosarcoma project have had equally good results, but not all. “We still need to figure out many things,” says Bracha, “but when it works, it is phenomenal.
Osteosarcoma is also a devastating disease in children – in fact, although it only accounts for 2% of cancer cases, it is responsible for 10% of all pediatric cancer deaths. The information gathered in the joint OHSU/OSU osteosarcoma project will benefit human treatment also. “They are doing some of these trials in children as well, but we can learn a lot from the dogs,” says Bracha. “Statistically, there are many more dogs with this disease than children. Because the progression of the disease is very, very similar in the dog, it makes sense to study the disease in both species.” Another benefit: Dogs have shorter lifespans so the study can collect data fast.
OSU has completed the pilot phase of the study. Currently, Dr. Bracha and another OSU researcher, Dr. Milan Milovancev, are fundraising to finance the next phase. “We still have a lot of data to collect,” says Bracha. “We have to get a large number of patients from different institutions – that is always the gold standard to do a multi-institutional study with big cohorts of patients to have statistically significant findings.”
Dr. Bracha has been treating dogs with cancer for nearly ten years. “We get very, very attached to our patients. We see them on a weekly basis for months, years sometimes. They become a big part of our lives so it is devastating when we lose them, and it’s a huge celebration when they surpass the average survival rate and do better,” he says. “Then they come and they wag their tail.” Despite the emotional roller coaster, Dr. Bracha views oncology as his mission. “It’s a privilege to do something that may change the survival or prognosis for dogs and for people,” he says.
Woody died last spring. Although they miss him very much, his family will always remember the contribution he made to science. “We were so fortunate to be given the opportunity to be part of the program,” say McGovern. “The experimental drugs allowed us two-and-a-half more years with him, and for that we will be eternally grateful. We hope the information gathered from Woody’s case study will be helpful to children and teens facing this terrible disease. Woody would have wanted it that way!”