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Saving our Pets, Saving Ourselves; Finding New Cancer Treatments

Virginia Tech Photo

Pets and people have so much common. They live together, share the same environment and, unfortunately, often come down with the same kind of cancers. A new state of the art medical research and treatment center just opened in Roanoke and its cutting-edge therapies are aimed at new cures for both species.

Casey is a Cairn Terrier whose 13th birthday is this week.  He’s not barking because he just had his second surgery.  Kenneth and Lisa Laughon are his people.     “He's got a wonderful personality, a little feisty outside. But he’s a little trooper going through these surgeries.”

The Laughons had been taking Casey for yearly physicals at Roanoke Animal Hospital, and that turned out be very important.  “We were taking him for annual physicals and our treating veterinarian, Dr. Thomas Blaszack of Roanoke Animal Hospital, was doing the blood work and was able to see that there was something wrong, even though he didn't seem to be feeling poorly.”



And that’s a key point, because state of the art treatment, means finding problems early, which is not easy because animals can’t really tell you what hurts.


“Casey is a client here. We've been seeing him for a long time, and he had, an issue with the liver. We noticed it on ultrasound and sent them down to Virginia Tech. And so, he's involved in one of their clinical trials.”


Liver cancer is hard to treat in dogs and people. Casey’s treatment included a special technique; high frequency electrical impulses that kill cancer cells, and mop any cancer cells that might be hiding in other places in the body. It’s called H-fire for short and it’s painless, like something out of Star Trek.


Casey’s doctor, Joanne Touhy, a cancer surgeon, came to the new research center specifically for this new state of the art approach to research and treatment. The clinic’s mission, to find cancer cures for animals and people, is illustrated by the fact that the animal clinic is housed inside the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, on the VTC Health Sciences and Technology campus.


Touhy wishes “No one or no animal ever got cancer.”


The fact that Casey is involved in clinical trials, is helping doctors find new ways to treat dogs who will develop these cancers, says Touhy. “And, with the data that we acquire, we’ll start investigating how we might be able to evaluate these therapies the human medical arena.”


What makes this center unique, is that it’s not only doctors but also Engineers, offering a bio-tech collaboration in treatments and testing. Shawna Klahn is program director for medical oncology residency training.

“One of the strengths of Virginia Tech is that we have such a strong and amazing engineering focus, “ says Klahn. So, we're primed to be in touch with that and be able to help them, and they help us. This is not happening at other veterinary centers across the country.


48 hours after Casey’s second surgery, he was a bit too eager to be back outside in the yard.

“He's not a young dog, but he gets a lot of walks.” Says Laughon.  “He's in good shape. He's had good medical care. And 48 hours after the surgery, he was going outside. We had to pull him back and he's not supposed to exercise for two weeks and jump, but he's, he's back to his old self with exception of, you know, he's got an incision from his neck all the way down his belly, but he's, he's doing, he's doing really well.”


The center’s clinical trials all come from client owned dogs. And not just from Roanoke or even this region, clients from anywhere have and will travel here. At this point, people have to pay for the animal’s treatment, but Clahn has big dreams for the new animal/ human research center.

“Those big dreams are, that we would become very similar to St. Jude's or the Mayo Clinic. So, we would be offering cutting edge clinical research so that everybody who came to our center was involved in some way in moving the needle, in oncology, whether it's, human or veterinary, it doesn't matter.”  In order to do that, she says “we need to attract the best and the brightest to come here and train. I want our program to be the best training program in the country.

Klahn says that to fulfil the goal of following in the footsteps of the St. Jude model for seriously ill children, the hope is that philanthropy will help achieve that goal.

 ***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.



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