Cooper is a ten-year-old Boxer who loves his family of raggedy, stuffed animals. He visits them every day. “He’s a riot,” says owner Nora LaBrocca. “He barks at his toys and tells them how the day is going.”
Last year, Cooper’s veterinarian became concerned when his gum did not heal after the removal of a bad tooth, so he sent a tissue sample to the OSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. The result was bad news: squamous cell carcinoma.
LaBrocca was referred to the Oncology Service at the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH) where oncologist Dr. Shay Bracha confirmed that Cooper had a tumor in his jaw. Because the cancer was malignant, Dr. Bracha knew that Cooper’s best chance for survival would be to remove the tumor with a margin of 2 centimeters of surrounding tissue. Unfortunately, that would require partial removal of the jaw itself. After describing this option to Cooper’s mom, she sadly decided not to proceed. “I thought I was saying ‘Goodbye’,” says LaBrocca.
New Cancer Treatment
Stan Stearns founded the Gabriel Institute after his beloved Saint Bernard, Gabriel, died while being treated for osteosarcoma. The goal of the Gabriel Institute is to save both dogs and humans through support of cancer research. Fortunately for Cooper, one month before his diagnosis, the Stearns Family Foundation donated a $500,000 Intraoperative Radiotherapy System to the VTH. It is the only system of its kind available at a veterinary hospital.
Conventional radiation treatment for tumors occurs post-surgery, and is administered through the skin over a period of many weeks. The Intraoperative Radiotherapy System provides one precise dose of radiation to a tumor cavity during surgery. The dose is created by accelerating electrons through a tube, onto a gold target where low-energy x-rays are generated and emitted evenly in all directions. Then the surgeon closes the incision.
The advantages of the system are fairly obvious: A much shorter treatment span of lower dose radiation to the area most likely to contain remaining cancer cells, while sparing healthy tissue from side effects.
There is a big payoff, for both humans and animals, in using a new therapy in a veterinary setting: animals respond more quickly. “We will learn a lot from these veterinary cases,” say Medical Physicist Kristina Tack, who set up the system. “Animals have shorter lifespans, and disease progression moves forward at a more rapid pace, so you can evaluate efficacy after only one year. Humans are not considered cured for five years.”
Cooper is now more than a year past his tumor removal with no sign of recurrence. A dozen other pets have received the same treatment and are doing well. Bracha will gather data from these treatments to demonstrate the efficacy of Intraoperative Radiotherapy. He is also helping OHSU adapt this treatment to their human cancer patients.
Cooper, and other pets at the VTH, are benefiting from a field known as comparative oncology, which evaluates cancer treatment in clinical studies of companion animals, with the goal of sharing valuable results with the human medical community. “Many of the cancers we diagnose in veterinary medicine are essentially the same cancers we see in human medicine,” says Bracha. “So we can translate findings from one to the other.”
Out Of The Laboratory And Into The Hospital
Researchers in the College of Pharmacy at Oregon State University have developed a way to selectively insert a compound called naphthalocyanine into cancer cells. The compound is attached to an extremely tiny nanoparticle whose properties allow it to travel through the blood vessels leading to cancer cells, but not to healthy cells. Once there, the naphthalocyanine will glow when exposed to infrared light. This allows surgeons to more accurately identify which tissue to remove and which to leave. Even more exciting is the component of this new treatment: Exposing the naphthalocyanine to a different level of light causes the compound to burst, killing the cancer cells.
The treatment has been shown to be remarkably successful in laboratory mice with ovarian cancer, completely preventing cancer recurrence while showing no apparent side effects. Now the College of Pharmacy is partnering with the College of Veterinary Medicine to test it on dogs with malignant tumors.
Rebecca Camden is a dog lover and long-time supporter of the College of Veterinary Medicine. She recently purchased a $60,000 Fluobeam Imaging System to be used in the testing of the new nanoparticle treatment. In addition to providing infrared light, the Fluobeam system provides real-time video and images of the process. The first clinical trials are scheduled to begin this summer.
Early Detection Can Save Lives
In another OSU collaboration, Bracha is working with Jan Medlock, a mathematical biology researcher in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Vince Remcho, a researcher in the Department of Chemistry. They have founded an OSU spinoff company called Lasso Metrics that plans to produce a low-cost, early detection test for cancer. The test will use biomarkers – molecules in bodily fluids that are unique to specific kinds of cancer.
The Bracha team recently identified the biomarkers for bladder cancer. They did this by looking at the blood from three groups of dogs: healthy dogs, dogs with urinary tract infections, and dogs with bladder cancer. When the blood was analyzed, they found 96 proteins specific to the bladder cancer patients.
Now Remcho will use this information to develop a microchip that could be placed in a cell phone and used to detect cancer from a test strip with a drop of urine on it. Remcho calls it ‘lab-in-a-chip’. This screening tool could eventually be used by veterinarians and doctors in their offices, providing an early detection tool that is quicker and cheaper than a traditional biopsy.