Woman's quest to save dog part of bigger picture in cancer treatment

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A dog's cancer treatment is shedding light on some medical advances for humans fighting the disease

When Marie Cary learned her 9-year-old dog Gracie had a tumor in her jaw, she was determined to do all she could to save her pet.

"She got me through some tough times, so even though I have limited resources I said 'I'm going to try something,'" Cary recalled.

Ironically, those "tough times" included losing her husband, Emery, to the very same disease a few years prior. So, despite the fact that she had moved from Wake County to South Carolina, Cary began driving back and forth regularly to the NCSU Vet School where Gracie was enrolled in a clinical trial involving a novel concept called "immunolight therapy."

Marie Cary's late husband, Emery, with Gracie

"Immunolight therapy involves a series of injections of materials and drugs into tumors and then activating those materials with low doses of radiation therapy," explains NCSU Assistant Professor of Radiation/Oncology Michael Nolan.

So, whereas previous rounds of traditional chemo had failed, this revolutionary treatment using radiation in a different way succeeded, with doctors declaring Gracie cancer-free.

And what's especially exciting about this is that if it is successful in dogs, it could have similar results in humans.

"Many people don't realize, like in humans, cancer is a very common cause of death in dogs. Over 50 percent of dogs over the age of 10 will die from cancer. Many of the cancers dogs get are similar to human cancer, such as sarcomas, melanomas, lymphomas, brain tumors..." stated Executive Director of Duke Cancer Institute Executive Director Michael Kastan, PhD.

That's why the Duke Cancer Institute and the NCSU Veterinary School are joining forces to form the "Consortium for Canine Comparative Oncology."

"We'll be working together to understand how cancers form, and to be able to study, together, how to develop new drugs to more effectively treat cancer in both patient populations," Kastan clarifies.

Marie Cary and Gracie

One benefit of pooling their resources is an increased patient population.

"A good example is a type of cancer called osteosarcoma, this is the most common bone cancer in kids. And we only see about 1,000 cases per year in people, but we see probably upwards of 50,000 cases in dogs, explains Duke Orthopedic Surgeon Will Eward, MD.

Eward also happens to be trained animal surgeon and sometimes treats "animal patients" as a veterinarian. Eward went on to explain that after ignoring this for years, doctors are starting to erase the dividing line between humans and their canine companions.

Dr. Eward

"I think finally we're starting to say, 'let's not worry about what species has osteosarcoma, let's see who has osteosarcoma and what we can learn from it,'" he explained.

Yet another benefit of studying both populations is the fact that, true to the phrase "dog years," canines do age faster than humans, yielding results for some of these treatments that much faster.

"So when we study new treatments in dogs we get answers quicker, because everything that's going to happen in their life plays out in a shorter period of time," stated Eward.

And, for dog owners, the big benefit is that their pets are getting cutting edge treatment.

"We should be very clear about the fact that we're not treating dogs as if they're experimental animals. These are drugs or treatments or new technologies that are basically ready to go in people," Eward added.

Eward noted that this also helps fast-track trials to then move on to the next phase, which would be testing on humans.

The hope is those tests would produce the same results Gracie has seen. It's a possibilty Cary believes her late husband would be proud of.

"He would smile and he would say, 'oh Gracie, you did it again, thank you,'" she exclaimed with a laugh.

For more info on enrolling your dog in a clinical cancer study, click here

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