By Dr. Becker
Early in 2013, Roxy, a 12 year-old Boxer, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a very common – and very deadly – type of brain cancer. She was given only a month to live.
Roxy’s owner contacted Dr. Liz Pluhar at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Pluhar and researchers at the U of M have been developing new treatments for pets with brain cancer since 2008. "We're doing something here that they're not doing anywhere else," Pluhar told KSTP.com.
Six Months After Surgery, Roxy is Cancer Free
Roxy is one of 100 dogs receiving an experimental treatment for brain cancer that doesn’t involve radiation or chemotherapy -- two traditional therapies that often fall into the category of “the cure is worse than the disease.”
The technique being used by Pluhar is a vaccine customized for each patient that helps the immune system destroy cancer cells that remain after tumors are surgically removed. "It's a way of using your own body and what your own body can do - stimulating it to attack these tumor cells," Pluhar said.
The novel treatment is getting results. Six months after surgery, Roxy is free of cancer cells and has the energy of a puppy again. According to Pluhar:
"They act like there's nothing wrong with them at all. There's no side effects of the treatment and they have a very good quality of life."
Before the vaccine, dogs with Roxie’s form of cancer lived only a few weeks after diagnosis. With the new treatment, they can live more than a year -- hopeful news for pet owners devastated by the diagnosis of brain cancer in a beloved canine companion.
Batman Was First Dog to Get New Treatment
The first dog Dr. Pluhar treated back in 2008 was Batman. Batman was a 10 year-old German Shepherd mix whose parents found him wandering the streets of Berlin in 1999. The couple brought Batman with them when they returned to the U.S. a couple years later, and he was a happy, healthy dog until he began having seizures in 2008. He was diagnosed with a glioma – a type of brain tumor – and wasn’t expected to live past Halloween of 2008.
Batman wound up at the University of Minnesota, where Dr. Pluhar, a veterinary surgery professor and John Ohlfest, a pediatrics professor, had been working on an experimental brain tumor treatment for about three years. Batman was the first dog to receive the treatment, which at that time had only been tried with mice.
Pluhar’s treatment plan involved a three-step approach including removing the tumor, treating the surgical site with gene therapy to attract immune cells that would identify and destroy remaining tumor cells, and administering a vaccine made from the dog’s own cancer cells designed to prevent recurrence of the tumor.
The treatment saved Batman’s life. Sadly, he passed away in 2010 at age 12 from pneumonia. Batman in Memoriam (1998-2010)
According to Dr. Pluhar:
“There is the potential for this type of therapy to be used in nearly any type of systemic cancer in dogs, not just brain cancer, because the immune response covers the entire body. I’m hopeful this therapy may in time be used for other types of systemic cancer in dogs.”
Thanks to Pluhar’s clinical trial with dogs, researchers at the University’s medical school are now repeating the trial on human patients. (Tumors in dogs and people are frequently clinically identical.)
Clinical Trials Continue
As of this writing, Dr. Pluhar continues to actively recruit dogs with glioma for currently funded projects. There is little to no cost to the dog owner. Read here for more information.