Portugese water spaniel providing evidence of possible breakthrough cancer treatment for people

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John Rossmeisl, the principal investigator for the canine malignant glioma study, joins Laura Kamienski and her dog, Emily. Given less than three months to live, Emily is now “back to normal,” Kamienski said, after her pet took part in a clinical study on brain tumors.

Virginia Tech faculty have long been engaged in frontline, boundary-breaking research to advance cancer treatments that help people — and animals.

The efforts and commitment of Tech’s cancer researchers were highlighted during the recent celebratory announcement of the university’s most ambitious fundraising campaign to date, Boundless Impact: The Campaign for Virginia Tech.

As a presenter at this historic event, John Rossmeisl, the Dr. and Mrs. Dorsey Taylor Mahin Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, described significant progress in wide-ranging efforts to combat glioblastoma. This is the most common malignant brain tumor, determinedly resistant to even the most aggressive treatments.

Thanks to collaborations between veterinary medicine, biomedical engineering and cancer biology at Virginia Tech,” Rossmeisl said, “we’re on the cusp of the next truly big breakthrough.” Playing a critical role in these advancements have been clinical trials involving companion animals, in particular a Portugese water dog named Emily.

At the conclusion of his presentation, Rossmeisl was joined by Laura Kamienski and Emily, who was diagnosed with a glioma brain tumor in early 2018. As of June of this year, no growth of the tumor has been detected in Emily’s last four MRIs, a testament to the deep impact and efficacy of collaborative research across the university.

When Emily,then ten years old, started having seizures in early 2018, her owner, who lived in Portersville, Penn.,, was shocked and scared. A specialist in Pittsburgh performed an MRI of Emily’s brain, and the results showed a brain tumor. Kamienski was devastated. “I sat in the middle of the exam room at the hospital and sobbed,” she said.

Kamienski was referred to VMCVM’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital to enroll Emily in a clinical study led by John Rossmeisl that aims to determine the safety of a new chemotherapeutic drug and drug delivery method in the treatment of brain tumors in dogs.

After performing an MRI, Rossmeisl confirmed that Emily had an aggressive glioma brain tumor, notoriously difficult to treat in both animals and people — and always fatal. The same type of cancer claimed the lives of senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy. Without treatment, Emily was given two-and-a half months to live.

Radiation therapy was the only option in Pittsburgh, and specialists there estimated that the treatment would add only a few weeks to Emily’s survival. Wanting the best possible option for her beloved companion, Kamienski decided to enroll Emily in Rossmeisl’s trial as the 15th participant.

I had to sign her up. She’s a member of my family. She’s my everything,” Kamienski said. “She has gotten me through some serious hardship over the years. It was my turn to do the same for her.” Kamienski paid for the cost of the initial MRI to confirm Emily’s diagnosis, while the study covered the treatment and follow-up examinations.

Emily received the treatment in April. The drugs, which are designed to affect only cancerous cells and to leave healthy cells unharmed, were injected directly into the tumors. During the MRI-guided procedure, Rossmeisl’s team watched the drug cover the tumor, confirming that the treatment goals had been achieved.

Back at home, Kamienski noted that Emily’s seizures stopped and that the dog was “back to being herself.” A follow-up MRI in June revealed that the drug was killing parts of the tumor, which had shrunk by more than 50 percent. According to Kamienski, Emily resumed her favorite activities, romping in the woods and swimming in lakes and creeks with Leo, a 2-year-old Portugese water dog.

We are just enjoying each day that we have,” Kamienski said. “If it weren’t for this trial, she’d be gone by now. I knew at the start that it’s not a cure. But it gave me hope and has given her more time.”

Thus far, the study’s results have been promising, leading to a five-year, $9.2 million grant from NIH’s National Cancer Institute to advance the same treatment methods into human trials within the next several years.

Along with Rossmeisl, Virginia Tech researchers working on the grant are Rafael Davalos, a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics who co-wrote the grant; John Robertson, a research professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics; and Scott Verbridge, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and science. Other team members are Chris Rylander, formerly of Virginia Tech and now an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Akiva Mintz, formerly of Wake Forest and now a professor of radiology at Columbia University Medical Center.

­­­­­The research team will examine four different approaches to treating glioblastoma in humans, who face a survival rate of about 14 months when the disease is in its most aggressive form, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.

Because the canine model is as close as researchers can get to studies with humans, Rossmeisl explained, clinical research involving canine companions with naturally occurring cancer can be a pathway to accelerate drug development for human cancers. Significantly, the Food and Drug Administration has indicated its willingness to use the dog data from the trials as a safety indicator for developing human trials.

The dogs are benefiting from this treatment, and eventually these drugs are intended to benefit humans,” Rossmeisl said. “The data from our study in dogs will inform both animal and human trials, so it’s mutually beneficial.”

Because dogs often develop the same or similar cancers as humans and at roughly the same rate, some trials at the college provide pets access to leading-edge technologies and novel therapies that have already been tested in human patients. For example, a current study is treating solid tumors in canine patients with high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU), which has been shown to activate the immune system in humans, leading to more effective destruction of cancer cells.

Jenny Kincaid Boone, university writer; Olivia Coleman, mobile journalist; and Mindy Quigley, clinical trials coordinator, contributed to this article.