BLACKSBURG — It started four years ago with a sneeze.
“Some blood came out, and that’s what sent us to the doctor, to the vet,” Sandra Friedlander said of her 14-year-old labradoodle, Grayton.
Then came the diagnosis: Nasal adenocarcinoma. If left untreated, this aggressive cancer is fatal within 6 months for about 95 percent of dogs diagnosed with it, said her husband, Michael Friedlander.
“With radiation therapy, they may get one to two years, and a very small minority may be cured,” said Nikolaos Dervisis, an oncologist at the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
But Grayton has defied those odds, surviving and even thriving four years after his diagnosis, thanks to state-of-the-art conventional treatments and an experimental therapy administered at Tech’s vet school. Eventually, the treatment may even have implications for human cancers.
Four years ago, however, it seemed the end for Grayton. The Friedlander’s local veterinarian could not treat his tumor, and at that time Tech’s vet school lacked an oncology service.
“It was really, really devastating at first,” Sandra Friedlander said. “I just depend on him so much because he’s just my friend here. He keeps me from being lonely when Michael’s out of town. And since I don’t have family here, and we’re new to Roanoke, he just keeps me company.”
The Friedlanders moved to Roanoke in 2010, when Michael, a neuroscientist, became the founding director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, a job that requires him to travel. At the institute, world-class researchers are working on big issues in human health, including cancers.
Luckily, the Friedlanders learned that the University of Florida veterinary hospital offered a sophisticated radiation therapy for dogs that is also used to treat tumors in humans. They made the long trip, and Grayton had one large dose of radiation on his first visit. Over the next couple of years, the family trekked back to Florida about three times a year for checkups.
“It was extremely sad and heartbreaking, initially,” Sandra Friedlander said. “I would call all my family, and I would say, ‘Everybody, please pray for Grayton and pray for his doctors.’ And every time we’d take him down there, I’d think, ‘Well, this is going to be the end.’”
Despite the worry, eventually the tumor seemed to have been destroyed, and Grayton had bounced back.
“When they first did it, the doctor said he may live 18 months, and we were thrilled. That’s a long time in a dog’s life,” she said.
Then, about a year ago, the tumor returned. In the meantime, the radiation had produced side effects. The fur on Grayton’s face went from black to white, and a fistula, or hole, developed on the left side of his muzzle, where the tumor had been. The fistula extends into the bone, Michael Friedlander said.
Because of the damage, Grayton couldn’t have any more radiation, and it seemed the cancer would finally take him, Sandra Friedlander said.
But in the meantime, Dervisis and co-researcher Shawna Klahn (the pair are married and have a dog) had set up the first oncology service at Tech’s vet school, and they were beginning a clinical trial for AuroLase, a technique in development by Nanospectra Biosciences Inc. The Texas-based company is working to bring nanoparticle tumor treatments to market, according to the company’s Website.
AuroLase animal trials also are underway at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in Athens, the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine and Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Dervisis said. Additionally, human trials have begun, the company website states.
In this two-step treatment, a solution carrying gold-coated nanoparticles is injected into the patient. It’s not known why, but the gold is attracted to the blood vessels feeding cancerous tumors and lodges there. It largely passes out of healthy tissues. After injection, doctors use a low-powered laser to heat up the gold particles without any effects on healthy tissues. The heat from the gold “cooks” the tumor from the inside.
Grayton was the first dog Klahn and Dervisis put in the nanoparticle trial. Two other dogs with nasal tumors and a third with a tumor on the leg have since been enrolled. Two were, like Grayton, previously treated with radiation. Another had no conventional treatment. Grayton has so far had the best results, going into full remission.
“I don’t think he’s going to die of cancer now,” Dervisis said.
The exact cost of the AuroLase trial so far has not been calculated. Each dose of the nanomaterial costs thousands of dollars, and the company flies in technicians to work with doctors on administering the laser treatment, which requires customized, calibrated equipment. The company has also given the Tech researchers $20,000 to pay for examinations and tests related to the treatment, with the possibility of more to come, Dervisis said.
This and other studies could have wide-ranging implications for animal health, and perhaps even for treatment of human cancer patients.
It’s estimated that half of dogs over 10 years old will die from cancer, as well as a third of cats of similar age, Klahn said.
The incidence of cancer in dogs is about the same overall as for humans, and cancer is similar enough in both species that some animal research findings are applicable to people, Dervisis said.
Veterinarian care may also offer more information than traditional lab studies. Most of the curing models in cancer research are based on implanting cancer into lab rodents — an artificial process. But Dervisis and Klahn treat and learn from dogs and cats that naturally develop the disease.
“What we see, we can help apply to human care. And actually it’s a big part of what is happening in the university,” Dervisis said. “We collaborate with M.D.s and basic researchers and engineers. That’s the thrilling part about actually being here.”
Grayton sneezes a lot when he gets excited because the left side of his nose is damaged from the radiation, Michael Friedlander said. And the fistula drains during the day.
“We have a perpetual … battle with what we lovingly refer to as snot rockets,” Michael Friedlander said.
“If you look around closely in our house, you will see evidence of it,” Sandra Friedlander agreed.
Each night, the neuroscientist flushes out the fistula and packs it with antibiotic salve. Despite the radiation damage, overall, the result of the treatments has been amazing for the family.
“I just wish they could do it for all cancer everywhere,” Sandra Friedlander said.
“I’m a scientist, and I think about these things. I’m absolutely convinced the radiation helped. I’m absolutely convinced the gold treatment helped,” Michael Friedlander said.
Grayton’s experience with cancer has also affected Friedlander’s perspective on his job at the research institute.
“Working with Nick, Shawna and others, it reminded me to think of animals as patients, just like humans are patients,” he said. “Even a rat can be somebody’s pet. It reminded me to think of all animals as patients.”
Friedlander also said his team at the research institute is working on a collaborative project that will bring together human and animal health research to help fight aggressive brain tumors, and perhaps later on, other diseases. The hope is that approaching it from a “one health” perspective will yield advances that might not be possible when human and animal cancers are studied in isolation, he said.
Klahn and Dervisis will also continue their work on cancers in dogs and cats. In addition to AuroLase, they have a handful of other clinical trials, including potential new treatments for late-stage breast cancer and T-cell lymphoma.
The AuroLase trial is still open to new dog and cat patients. For more information and criteria, visit https://goo.gl/PNS0kL. For information on other clinical trials at the veterinary college, visit http://www.vetmed.vt.edu/clinical-trials.