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Not just for humans

Veterinary school uses new technology to treat cancers in dogs

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Print this page by Robert Burke
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Dr. Jeffrey Ruth holding Maddi Smith, the first dog treated in the study.
Photo courtesy Virginia Tech

Here’s another reason why dogs are man’s best friend. A research effort now underway at Virginia Tech’s Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine is testing a new technology — focused ultrasound — as a way to treat soft-tissue cancers in dogs.

Besides helping animals recover from tumors, the lessons learned during these treatments might help improve the use of focused ultrasound for human patients.

Both dogs and humans get these kinds of sarcomas, says Dr. Jeff Ruth, assistant professor in the school’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. “So, the things we learn from these dogs could translate to people,” he says.

The research is made possible through a partnership with the Charlottesville-based Focused Ultrasound Foundation, which was founded in 2006. Since then, the foundation pushed this technology forward by supporting the research, development and the commercialization of focused ultrasound technology.

More than 100 conditions
Dr. Neal Kassell, the foundation’s chairman and founder, says there are now more than 100 conditions being studied for focused ultrasound treatment, among them Alzheimer’s disease, essential tremor, Parkinson’s disease and metastatic breast cancer. These efforts are underway around the U.S. and in nearly 60 other nations.

Focused ultrasound is a noninvasive treatment that uses sound waves to destroy tissue. Most of the research still is in the early stages, though knowledge of its possible uses is growing “exponentially,” Kassell says. “The foundation is in a position to influence that trajectory” and accelerate the use of focused ultrasound.

The technology is being used to treat an ever-increasing number of people: 15,000 in 2014, rising to more than 50,000 in 2016. The total for last year isn’t available yet, but Kassell hopes it will be around 100,000 patients.

The foundation has an annual budget of $8 million to $10 million, with about 35 full-time and seven part-time employees. Five physicians help lead the foundation, including Dr. Suzanne LeBlang, the chief medical officer, who has more than 10 years clinical experience with focused ultrasound for uterine fibroids and bone metastases. Kassell is a former co-chair of neurosurgery at the University of Virginia.

$10 million donation
The foundation depends on donors, and Kassell is pretty good at fundraising. Last fall, the foundation received an anonymous $10 million donation, which is to be matched by 2022. Kassell thinks the matching funds will be in place this year or next.

Private-sector investors also are interested in the technology. In December, Koch Disruptive Technologies, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, invested $150 million in Israel-based Insightec, a commercial-stage, medical-device company that uses MRI-guided focused ultrasound.

The veterinary research is something of an outlier, because pretty much all the other efforts involve human illnesses. The Virginia Tech study itself is just beginning. The foundation grant is for up to $170,000, which will cover almost all stages of treatment for up to 20 dogs. That includes scans and the lab work and the surgery itself, which happens after the ultrasound treatment.

Cocker spaniel treated
So far, just one dog has been treated — a cocker spaniel — and the first indications are that focused ultrasound treatment has caused the dog’s own immune system to respond to the cancer, Ruth says.

“The reason cancer survives and thrives in the body is basically it disguises itself to look like just any other cell,” which means the immune system won’t know to attack it, Ruth says. “However, if you take these cancer cells and break them apart, it breaks down the cell membrane and exposes the proteins inside the cancer cells to the immune system.”

In October, the foundation will host its sixth International Symposium on Focused Ultrasound, this time in Reston. About 400 people are expected to attend.

There’s still a lot of work to do, Kassell says. Almost too much. “The foundation’s been more successful than anybody anticipated,” he says. The challenge now is, how to focus its resources “in areas where we can be most effective. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out which can translate into treatments.”

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