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Page: Animal cancer treatment valuable to humans

August 11, 2014
By Coleman Cornelius

Dr. Rodney Page thinks the dog is a cancer patient's best friend.

Not in the way you might think. Yes, dogs offer loyal companionship that might be especially meaningful to a pet owner facing disease diagnosis and treatment.

Dr. Rodney PageYet there’s more. Page, as director of Colorado State University’s world-renowned Flint Animal Cancer Center, is leading a push within the field of cancer medicine to view dogs with naturally occurring disease as the ideal route to improving cancer treatment in people.

On Thursday, the Stephen J. Withrow Presidential Chair in Oncology will be officially conferred to Page during a reception on campus, a ceremony significant for what the chair will provide: funding to support studies that promise to help both pets and people with cancer.

An academic chair is a funding mechanism that provides investment revenue from an endowment – in this case, an impressive $6 million endowment – to boost teaching, research and service in a field of interest to donors. This chair is named for Dr. Steve Withrow, founding director of the CSU Animal Cancer Center, University Distinguished Professor and pioneer in the field of veterinary oncology.

"More than 700 generous donors contributed to this endowment, which is a tremendous testament to their appreciation for Dr. Withrow's unparalleled cancer treatment and innovations," said Dr. Mark Stetter, dean of the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. "We are grateful for this support in honor of Dr. Withrow because it will allow the Animal Cancer Center, under the guidance of Dr. Page, to carry on a vital legacy in cancer discoveries."

Funding from the prestigious chair not only supports continued treatment of pets with cancer, but supports the application of knowledge gained to improve treatment for people with cancer.

What does that mean?

It starts here: The Animal Cancer Center books some 6,000 appointments each year with animal cancer patients, primarily dogs. Job No. 1 is healing these patients with medication, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

As Page often says, “Cancer is cancer,” meaning the disease appears, progresses and responds to treatment in much the same way no matter the species. So it makes sense that human treatment should benefit from the vast medical data and knowledge gained in the course of treating pets.

Withrow was an early proponent. When Page took over as center director in 2010, he likewise took up the mantle of canine oncology within the sphere of translational medicine, meaning medical knowledge that may be translated from one species to another.

Page, a CSU veterinary alumnus who was mentored by Withrow, explains the translational role of canine oncology – and more – in the following Q&A.           

Coleman Cornelius: What does it mean to you to have more than 700 people contribute to this chair you’re holding?

Dr. Rodney Page: That’s pretty phenomenal, isn’t it? The chair is an honor to Steve, and that’s the most significant part of this. The relationship Steve has had with hundreds of thousands of students, residents, clients, people who call from all over the world for his opinion on their cases, really is unique. I don’t think I’ve known anyone else who has devoted that level of commitment to this profession. It shows in the core values that Steve established for our cancer center, of vision, integrity and passion. Hundreds of donors have joined in support of those values.

CC: In what ways are you carrying on Dr. Withrow’s legacy?

RP: I hope I can continue to foster compassion for clients and their pets, and I hope I can emulate Steve’s focus and understanding about what’s important. Since I returned to CSU, I’ve learned a lot more about the spirit of the Animal Cancer Center, the teamwork and the focus. People here support each other, and that creates a feeling of shared respect. That’s something that has to continue.

CC: Dr. Withrow saw the canine oncology patient very early in his career as a model for understanding human cancer. That has continued at the Flint Animal Cancer Center, and is part of the legacy you carry on. Yet, it’s still a concept not a lot of people know about. Can you explain?

RP: Cancer is cancer. The same mechanisms that result in cancer in humans are operative in dogs, and are operative in other animals as well. The thing that is valuable – and I believe will continue to grow in its value – is the information that can be gathered through well-done clinical studies in companion animals with naturally occurring cancers. The ability to look at why a tumor spreads or why a tumor becomes resistant to drugs in a relevant environment is how we foresee our scientific program growing in the future.

CC: What’s your elevator speech if you were to meet an oncologist in human medicine and they hadn’t been exposed to the concept of using dogs with cancer as a model for understanding human cancer?

RP: It starts with noting that dogs share our environment. They’re exposed to the same sorts of insults that we are exposed to, and they develop naturally occurring, genetically based diseases more than any other species next to man. More than 400 diseases have been identified as genetically based, and many of those are cancer. In addition, dogs age much more rapidly than people, so tumors develop much more rapidly. This means that, as we treat our canine patients, we can ask and answer the same questions but in a fraction of the time that it takes in a human study.

CC: Talk a little bit about the comparative oncology trials that are ongoing at the Flint Animal Cancer Center? How would you summarize the overall goal of those trials?

RP: Whether the study is about improving animal health, or whether it is a lead-in to a human trial, the focus is always on innovation – trying to find ways to do it better, trying to overcome limitations on treatment for cancers. It’s all about improving the bottom line of cancer treatment. We have trials that are conducted for cancer drugs, radiation, new diagnostic tests, and all are part of moving the profession forward for the benefit of pets and people.

CC: Could you point to three major breakthroughs at the Flint Animal Cancer Center that have had a direct influence on human cancer treatment and its effectiveness?

RP: The homeruns that have been provided already include an understanding of radiation response for head and neck cancer, which was done by Dr. Ed Gillette in the ’90s. Up until the advent of very new technologies, that was the basis for the treatment protocol. There’s also the limb-sparing surgery for cancer patients that was advanced by Steve and Dr. Ross Wilkins, a human orthopedic surgeon. It has allowed patients, primarily children, to keep their limbs when undergoing cancer surgery and is recognized as the standard for kids with bone cancer. Another example is the development of a product that stimulates the immune system and has resulted in an improvement in survival for kids with bone cancer by delaying metastasis. That product is currently available, but not yet in the United States because of regulatory issues.

CC: Of some of the studies you currently have under way, is there something that shows particular promise for advancing human cancer treatment and its understanding?

RP: We’re involved with a study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, which involves multiple institutions and is evaluating compounds for the treatment of lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune system. We are looking at the response to treatment in dogs with lymphoma, and we’re also looking at how well this product will work at the microscopic level.

CC: I also have to ask you: Are you a dog lover? If so, how has that influenced your work as a veterinary oncologist?  

RP: I am a dog lover – and a cat lover, and a bird lover, and a wildlife lover. I started out as a bioscience major in college and was uncertain of the next step so I enrolled in a program at a medical school. I wanted to find out what it was like in medical school, and with that experience I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian because of my love for animals. I’ve also had wonderful veterinary mentors my entire career, and that helped me tremendously.

About the Flint Animal Cancer Center

·       Opened in 2002, the center houses the world’s largest group of scientists studying cancer in pets, with more than 100 faculty clinicians, staff members and veterinary students.

·       The center books about 6,000 appointments per year and provides an additional 3,000 consultations by phone and email.

·       It has trained more surgical, medical and radiation oncologists than any other veterinary institution.