A new center has opened in Roanoke to bring cutting-edge care to pets with cancer, and to develop therapies that might someday cure cancers in their human companions.
The Animal Cancer Care and Research Center had a soft launch in August and has been offering a range of treatments and trials for dogs and cats that had not been available in this region.
The center is located in the new Fralin Biomedical Research Institute building on the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences campus in Roanoke. The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine moved its oncology services from Blacksburg to Roanoke, which will allow the vet school not only to advance training for its students, but to build more collaborations with scientists who want to take therapeutic discoveries out of their labs and into practice.
Discoveries must go through different clinical phases to prove they are safe and effective before being approved for use in humans. One of those stages involves animals.
Casey, a feisty Cairn terrier who turned 13 this week, is benefiting from one of those new developments, said his people parents, Lisa and Ken Laughon.
Casey had surgery last week to remove a liver tumor. The Laughons said Dr. Joanne Tuohy, the center’s interim director, spent an hour with them, explaining a trial that could help, and also the risk.
During the surgery, a technique called H-FIRE, for high-frequency irreversible electroporation, was performed to target cancer cells, especially those that can’t be safely removed with traditional surgery techniques. H-FIRE also is expected to stimulate Casey’s immune system to destroy cancer cells.
Tuohy said they are working closely with Tech’s biomedical engineers, who are developing the techniques.
“They both kill cancer cells and remove the tumors without the need for surgery. That is the long-term goal, and also have the potential of stimulating the immune response so that the immune response of the patient works against the cancer,” she said. “These therapies are very, very new and are exciting and have a lot of potential.”
Comprehensive careThe Laughons, who live in Roanoke and Smith Mountain Lake, said they would have traveled anywhere and done whatever was necessary to help Casey live a longer, better-quality life. But they are grateful that the center is close to home, and they realize that are fortunate because not everyone can travel or cover the expense.
They’ve been told that part of Casey’s bill will be covered since he is enrolled in the H-FIRE trial, but they don’t know how much. That wasn’t a factor for them, but they know it could be for others.
When Casey was first diagnosed last fall, the Laughons took him to Blacksburg for his first surgery. It’s a trip along Interstate 81 that many pet owners are familiar with.
But until recently, cancer treatment options were limited, and the school had only two medical oncologists on staff.
One of them, Dr. Shawna Klahn, said if a dog had a cancerous tumor that required surgery, the case would have been referred to one of the soft-tissue surgeons, and if it needed radiation the family would need to travel either out of state or to Northern Virginia.
She had to take her own cat to North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh.
“I drove down three times, staying in hotels. It’s a big, big ask,” she said
The comprehensive approach cuts out both the travel and all the duplicate tests and forms previously required with each new consultation.
“Every day, all the faculty, whether they are radiation, surgery or medical, we meet and talk about every patient and come up with a treatment plan. And that is very different than the way we were doing it before and very different from what other oncology centers are able to do,” Klahn said. “So that’s huge for us.”
The team decides the combination and order of treatments.
“The other benefit is every day when I’m sitting in a room with other specialists, I’m learning, too. So then I can actually educate my clients better,” Klahn said. “But what really excites me is the next generation is in that room. They are hearing three different specialists talk about one patient and debate the pros and cons of timing, and they are listening to this and learning. The next generation of specialists are going to be that much better.”
For Dr. Thomas Blaszak, owner of Roanoke Animal Hospital, who refers his clients, including Casey, to Tech, the comprehensive care is welcome.
“The lines of communication are different when you can all get in a room, discuss it and bring it to a client,” he said. “It’s a lot to take in just having a diagnosis of cancer, but then having to deal with multiple places and people that sometimes are not in close communication can make things more difficult to manage and provide that best care.”
Helping both kids and dogsTuohy said that comprehensive care includes a $3 million linear accelerator that is capable of delivering different types of radiation therapy and allows them to tailor treatments to animals.
Having all three components of oncology in-house will also allow the vet students, interns and residents to learn more.
“A large part of our mission is research. So we have PhD students and post docs working with us as well,” she said. The center plans to specialize in the types of tumors that affect dogs and humans, including osteosarcoma, which affects young people.
Tech’s research institute also has an alliance with Children’s National Hospital to work on pediatric brain cancers that are of the same type found in dogs.
All of the animals involved in the trials are family pets, and their owners consent to the treatments.
Tuohy said the center is just getting started and has plans to grow its presence in the region and to be a place for people from all over to come for treatments.
“We really, really want to be able to help pets with cancer and their owners,” she said, while advancing the mission to teach, provide clinical care and advance research.
“I hope to see us advance our research so we benefit both our veterinary patients and also humans. That is a very important focus,” she said.