'Batman' cancer treatment lands U of M funding for clinical trial

4:28 PM, Aug 4, 2009   |    comments
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One year after successfully performing the first step of an experimental procedure to treat a dog with brain cancer, that revolutionary treatment is now available to other dog owners.

Researchers with the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, Medical School, and Masonic Cancer Center have now made the treatment that saved the life of Batman, a 10-year-old German shepherd mixed breed dog, available for other dogs with brain cancer.

Batman's doctors, G. Elizabeth Pluhar, D.V.M., Ph.D. and John Ohlfest, Ph.D., have funding to treat 50 dogs, but they soon hope to have openings in their clinical trials for more than 100. Eligible dogs are those with primary brain tumors, including an aggressive and relatively common form of brain tumor called a glioma.

Without treatment, Batman would have likely died from his glioma months earlier. Now one-year following his initial treatment, which occurred in August 2008, Batman has achieved national recognition for having survived an aggressive cancer, and he has become the poster dog for a breakthrough treatment.

Batman is scheduled for a one-year checkup that includes a MRI on Wednesday, August 5. The implications for the treatment of brain cancer in animals and humans could be far-reaching.

"This type of therapy has the potential to be used on nearly any type of systemic cancer in dogs, not just brain cancer, because the immune response covers the entire body," says Pluhar. "I'm hopeful this therapy may in time be used for other types of systemic cancer in dogs."

Pluhar, a veterinary surgeon at the College of Veterinary Medicine's Veterinary Medical Center, and Ohlfest, head of the neurosurgery gene therapy program at the Masonic Cancer Center, have become the University's own dynamic duo. The team developed the new three-pronged treatment regimen consisting of surgical removal of the tumor, treatment of the surgical site with a form of gene therapy to attract immune cells to destroy remaining tumor cells, and administration of an anti-cancer vaccine made from the dog's own cancer cells to prevent tumor recurrence.

Through both government and private foundation funding, Pluhar and Ohlfest have treated three other dogs since Batman for similar tumors. The second dog to receive treatment exhibited an impressive tumor regression following six vaccinations.

"We documented an anti-tumor immune response that has correlated quite well with tumor regression in the first two dogs," says Ohlfest. Ohlfest and Pluhar are optimistic that the other two dogs will show similar responses.

Canine brain cancer treatments are part of the Brain Tumor Clinical Trials Program. Dogs with tumors that originate within the brain may be eligible to join one of the trials. The program will cover most of the costs of treatment, including surgery and supportive care while a dog is enrolled in one of the trials. Without funding, treatment costs could reach $20,000 per dog.

Ohlfest and Pluhar work in the comparative oncology discipline. They use what they learn in veterinary medicine to help humans, and they extrapolate what they can from human medicine to help pet animals. Eventually, Ohlfest hopes to develop a similar vaccine for humans that is both effective and cost-efficient.

(Copyright 2009 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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