ACMastheadCooper 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.

Cytology team at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory: Dr. Sue Tornquist, Dr. Austin Viall, and Dr. Elena Gorman.
Cytology team at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory:
Dr. Sue Tornquist, Dr. Austin Viall, and Dr. Elena Gorman.

While clients of the small animal hospital are waiting to get a diagnosis on a pet who may or may not have cancer, a crack team of cytopathologists are working behind the scenes at the OSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL) to provide answers as quickly as possible.

That team of experts includes Dr. Elena Gorman, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pathology, Dr. Sue Tornquist, Interim Dean and Clinical Pathologist, and Dr. Austin Viall, Clinical Pathology Resident. Their work involves the examination under a microscope of preparations made from body fluids or solid tissue that is sent to them by doctors at the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“In the course of a day, we take multiple ultrasound-guided, fine needle aspirates and within a few hours, or less if needed, we can get an answer if the patient has potential cancer or not,” says Dr. Susanne Stieger-Vanegas, Assistant Professor of veterinary diagnostic imaging. “Without their tremendous expertise and knowledge, we would not get a quick answer on what we are dealing with,” says Stieger-Vanegas.

Fine needle aspiration is a rapid method for determining if a solid lump of tissue is benign or malignant. By using a syringe to extract cells from a suspicous growth, then examining them under a microscope, an experienced cytopathologist can look for the presence of cell abnormalities and make a diagnosis. It is faster and less invasive than a biopsy.

In addition to the rewards of helping to treat and save pets, there are other aspects of cytopathology that make this team passionate about their work. “Cells are really very beautiful,’ says Dr. Tornquist. “I’m a big mystery fan. Looking for patterns in the cell types, and other things we see in a cytology sample, is like trying to put together all the clues in a mystery and solving it. And at the end of this process, you can have an impact on the lives of animals and their people.”

One advantage of being a VDL pathologist, as opposed to working at a laboratory that services hundreds of veterinary hospitals, is that the patients and doctors are located right down the hall. “I love that I have a plethora of specialists who I can turn to for information and education,” says Gorman. “Being associated with a teaching hospital makes our diagnostic capabilities so much stronger. It’s invaluable to be able to discuss the clinical aspects of a case and even go look at the patient if I so choose,” she says. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”

In addition to diagnosing disease, the pathologists also participate in numerous research projects and teach students. “I love teaching and working with students, house officers and clinicians,” says Gorman. “It’s so much more fun to share the experience because, well, cells are cool!”

Dr. Jennifer Warnock, an orthopedic surgeon at the Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital, releases at Merlin falcon after repairing its fractured wing.
Dr. Jennifer Warnock, an orthopedic surgeon at the Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital, releases at Merlin falcon after repairing its fractured wing.

At the Rogers Wayside Park near Silverton, Oregon, Dr. Jennifer Warnock and OSU veterinary student Kyra Knutson placed a pet carrier in the middle of a grassy field. It was a quiet spot surrounded by trees and, more importantly, it was on the north-south bird migration path of the Pacific Flyway. Warnock donned a pair of heavy, foot-long, leather gloves, opened the carrier door, and gently removed a brown bird the size of a cockatoo. The bird was covered with a lightweight blanket to keep it warm and calm. As Knutson removed the blanket, Warnock lifted her arms and let go. The bird was so fast, it took off in a blur and landed in the nearest tree before they could even watch it fly. After a few minutes, the bird flew across the field to a taller tree. “She’s cutting just the way she is supposed to; that’s a good sign,” said Warnock.

The bird was a Merlin, a type of small migratory falcon, also known as a Pigeon Hawk.  Six months earlier, a good Samaritan had stopped and rescued the bird from the middle of a road north of Rogers Wayside and took it to the Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center near Salem. The Merlin had a fractured wing so they called the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital to ask if a surgeon was available to repair it.

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is often, ‘No’. The small animal hospital at OSU is generally limited to the treatment of cats and dogs, but Warnock is an orthopedic surgeon with a personal interest in raptor rehabilitation, and squeezes enough money out of her teaching fund to help about one bird a year. She uses that opportunity to give students with an interest in avian medicine an chance to observe the surgery. “It’s a great learning experience for them,” she says.

One of the missions of the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital is to use minimally invasive surgery whenever possible. Dr. Warnock repaired the Merlin’s fractured radius and ulna using fluoroscopy, a technique that uses images obtained during surgery via x-ray. Those images appear on a monitor that the surgeon watches as she operates. “We were able to stabilize the fracture without making incisions, which not only decreases postoperative pain,” says Warnock, “but also preserves bone blood supply, thus allowing comminuted fractures to heal.”

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Dr. Morrie Craig has translated his research into a plan for using sheep to clean contaminated soil.
Dr. Morrie Craig has translated his research on rumen bacteria into a plan for using sheep to clean up soil.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, and the ensuing Persian Gulf War, left behind half a million unexploded land mines. Today, Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams are still working to clear out those mines.

Less critical, but still a serious health concern, is the residue left from exploded ordnance. Soil across Kuwait is contaminated with TNT and other explosive compounds. If inhaled in dust, or ingested through ground water, TNT residue can cause dermatitis, kidney disease, anemia, and even cancer. Traditional soil cleaning methods like incineration are expensive and mar the environment. OSU Professor Morrie Craig has a better idea: Send out the sheep.

As a toxicologist in the College of Veterinary Medicine, Craig discovered that the multiple stomach chambers in a sheep contain bacteria that break down alkaloid toxins in plants. This makes it possible for them to eat all kinds of nasty weeds that make other animals sick.

When the U.S. military heard about his research, they suggested Craig test sheep bacteria on a synthetic alkaloid toxin: TNT. Used in the manufacture of bombs for the U.S. military since World War II, the military was looking for cost-effective ways to clean up TNT-contaminated sites in the U.S. and around the world.

In 2011, Craig and researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture fed sheep TNT for three weeks and found that it broke down in the sheep’s stomach so completely there was no trace of it in their feces. When coupled with Craig’s earlier research on the use of grasses to suck contaminants out of the soil, these new findings gave Craig a plan for bioremediation of explosives residue: Plant grass in contaminated areas then graze sheep on those fields.

CraigCamelAfter testing his plan on soil at a military base, Craig estimates a flock of 20 sheep can completely clear an acre of explosives residue in less than three years. Now he is working with the Kuwaiti government to help them adapt his discoveries to a plan that will work in their country. They are currently testing warm-season grasses for TNT uptake, and they are investigating the possibility of using camels as well as sheep. Funding for the projects comes from a tax on Iraqi oil as part of a United Nations settlement to compensate Kuwait for damage done by the Persian Gulf War.

In December, Dr. Craig will be the keynote speaker at an international seminar in Kuwait on The Environmental Impact of Explosive Remnants of War.

OSU’s International Veterinary Students Association made their annual trek to Nicaragua in August, creating a free clinic in the jungle for a rural community that has no veterinary care available. In just six days they treated 623 animals, providing spay and neuter surgery, dental care, disease treatment, and health education. Thirty-two veterinary students, four veterinarians, and three certified veterinary technicians volunteered their time to the mission, which relies on charitable donations for supplies and travel expenses. Read more.


WoodyWoody 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!”

bugs001It doesn’t sound very enjoyable, but 18,000 of your fellow citizens have signed up to participate in the American Gut Project  ̶̶  before it has even started.

Researchers at universities around country will be recruiting large numbers of people to contribute samples of the microbes that live in their intestines. The goal of the project is to collect a large database of information about these bugs, and they will use genome sequencing to differentiate and identify hundreds of different species.

With the advent of microprocessors in the 1990’s, computers were able to handle massive amounts of information. This allowed scientists to take a small peice of DNA and map the entire genetic code of an organism in a process called genome sequencing. In the last decade, improvements in the technology behind this process have made it more accessible and less expensive, and a whole new branch of biomedical research has resulted: The study of the microbial community in a human intestine.

In the intestines, billions and billions of microbes, with colorful names like Bifidobacterium infantis and Lactobacillus acidophilus, live and function in a symbiotic relationship with each other, and with your own cells. Many of the critters that live in your gut cannot be grown in a laboratory test tube so their function, or even their existence, was unknown before genome sequencing. Now that scientists know what is there, they are discovering how important these bugs are in digesting our food, building our immune systems, maintaining stable glucose levels, and other jobs that are critically important to good health.

At the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, Natalia Shulzhenko is working on the frontier of this new science. Trained as a medical doctor, Shulzhenko became interested in the bugs that inhabit the gut while working at the National Institute of Health. One of her projects discovered a three-way interaction, or crosstalk, between the immune system, the intestinal lining, and intestinal bugs. When this communication was disrupted in mice, it led to poor absorption of fats and malnutrition. “We realized that what happens in the gut is not only about our own cells but about the microbes that live there. They have huge powers,” she says.

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pebbleA little, nine-pound cat with a dicey history is trying to give Benny Beaver a run for his money in the mascot department. The cat’s journey from critically-ill stray to Beaver Believer began at the Oregon Humane Society in Portland, Oregon.

A unique partnership exists between the Oregon Humane Society (OHS) and the College of Veterinary Medicine at OSU. It began in 2007 with the opening of the Animal Medical Learning Center (AMLC), a full-service animal hospital adjoining the OHS shelter.  At the center, veterinary students from OSU live onsite in dorms and take two-week clinical courses in primary care as part of their graduation requirement. They join OSU veterinary faculty and the OHS medical staff, working on everything from diagnoses to surgery. It’s a win-win collaboration and, as the first program of its kind in the nation, has become a model for other universities to follow. The benefits of the program to veterinary students and the Humane Society are obvious but for Pebble the cat, the partnership between OSU and OHS was a life saver.

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FeralCatShuttleThe old cinder-block building on the Benton County Fairgrounds has held a variety of events over the years from holiday bazaars to library book sales, but on a warm, sunny day in November, the floor was covered with an unusual display: row after row of folding tables holding dozens of blanket-covered crates.

Out in the parking lot, pulled up close to the front entry, was a big, white trailer with an enormous graphic of a cat on its side. Shuttling between the trailer and the building, a steady stream of veterinary and pre-veterinary students held unconscious cats bundled into blankets. The Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon (FCCO) had come to town.

The FCCO uses a trap-neuter-return strategy to combat the exploding growth of feral cats in Oregon. The coalition supplies humane traps to property owners who bring captured cats into a clinic for sterilizing. It is the only proven way of reducing the feral cat population and it depends on the kindness of many volunteers including the veterinarians who perform the surgeries.

At the fall clinic in Corvallis, six different veterinarians worked in the operating room of the big white trailer performing nearly 100 sterilization surgeries in just half a day. OSU students from the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) prepped the cats for surgery, moved them to the recovery area, and monitored their progress. The cats were returned to property owners for release the next day.

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OperatingOmetepeOmetepe Island is a tropical jewel in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. It is largely undeveloped and reached only by a forty-minute ferry ride over notoriously rough water. The people of Ometepe have little money and rely on their animals for food and transportation, yet there is no resident veterinarian on the island. This means that many of the domestic animals suffer from disease and malnutrition.

Every year, for seven years in a row, the OSU student chapter of the International Veterinary Students Association (IVSA) has travelled to Ometepe to help.

OSU veterinary medicine students begin organizing their fall trek to Ometepe in the spring. They start early because it is a huge logistical endeavor to move dozens of volunteers, plus huge amounts of equipment and supplies, to an island 4,000 miles away. Laura Meadows is a second-year veterinary student who made her first trip to Nicaragua last fall. She was surprised by how well the complex project functioned. “We brought together students, faculty, staff, private-practice vets, and massive amounts of supplies and equipment, then transported everything and everybody via plane, bus, boat, taxi, and horse to a remote town on a small island in a third-world country. We had the trust of the community to bring their animals from miles away and we successfully treated over 300 animals. Then we cleaned up, packed all our things, and successfully got everything and everybody back home. Whew!”

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