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Canine Brain Cancer Treatment May Help Humans

Alyson Taylor

A treatment being tested for brain cancer in dogs may one day help humans with the same disease. Clinical trials at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg are showing promising results and a new round of trials is set to start early next year. 

Alyson Taylor adopted Bentley the boxer from the Bedford Humane society when he was a year and a half old. She says, “He’s a character.  He doesn’t know what ‘personal space’ is. He wants to be near me all the time.”

Bentley is now six.  That’s middle aged for his breed and it’s when the risk for brain cancer goes up, for dogs and for people. Earlier this year, Bentley had a symptom that is characteristic of the disease in both.

“I had been taking him to doggy day care and he had a seizure that morning and when I came to pick him up they told me about him," Taylor remembered. "When I got him out to the parking lot, I couldn’t even get him in the truck before he had another seizure. So, of course I panicked, freaked out, and I took him to the emergency vet. They kept him over night and I was able to get an appointment here the next morning.”

This is  It turned out Bentley has what’s called a Glioma. Dr. John Rossmeisl at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg explains, “It’s a type of brain tumor in dogs that are also what most people know as glioblastoma in humans.”

It’s the type of brain tumor U.S. Senator John Mc Cain has; the one that Beau Biden, the former Vice President’s son, died from.  It’s the second most common brain cancer in humans, striking 3 in 100,000 people every year.

They’re more common in dogs, especially short nosed breeds like boxers and the tumors behave the same way in both species.  "That's why we have  NIH (National Institutes of Health) money really. Dogs and humans are very similar," Rossmeisl explains. "They actually have the same clinical signs for brain tumors that people do. If you show a pathologist an image of a canine glioblastoma and an (image of ) a human's, under the microscope, they wouldn't be able to tell you which species it came from."

Maybe it's those similarities that lead  many people connect so well with dogs, but it’s definitely why scientists are studying the effects in dogs, of a promising molecular chemotherapy drug  that targets brain cancer cells, but leaves healthy brain tissue undamaged.

So far, it appears the drug can slow or even shrink glioblastomas in dogs and people.  But there’s no evidence that it can eliminate the cancer all together.

Dr. Rossmeisl is showing Alyson Taylor an image of what the drug is doing to Bentley’s brain tumor on a screen.  She takes a photo of it with her phone. She says, “I always do, every time I come to the office and (they show me) the M-R-I.”

Rossmeisl points to a bright white spot on the screen and explains that it’s the tumor, “But that black area means that the tumor is rotting and dying and that’s actually a good sign . The next time we see him, hopefully those black areas will be absorbed by the body and the tumor will be smaller.”

Dr. Rossmeisl says since the trials began the dogs that have been treated with these chemotherapeutic drugs (CEDs) have done better than those that were not.

When Bentley was diagnosed with brain cancer last April, doctors gave him 3 to 6 months to live. It’s already been 9. Alyson Taylor says his seizures have diminished greatly and his quality of life is much improved. "Granted, when he’s finished the treatment he’s slow for a couple of days but he’s the old Bentley-- I’m going to cry. He’s the Bentley that I know. He’s my child.”

Dr. Rossmeisl says the project  has just gotten new funding from NIH to continue the brain cancer trials with the next generation of an even smarter drug targeting glioblastomas.  The Virginia Maryland Veterinary College is now accepting dogs with the disease to participate in that study, which begins early next year.

For more information, and to see if your pet qualifies for the study at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, click here.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.