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Forget the idea of the solitary researcher toiling away in his lab. At the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences (CVMBS) at Colorado State University, they decided long ago that cooperation beats isolation, and that inspiration and innovation can come from many different places.
With more than a century under its metaphorical belt—CVMBS celebrated its 100th birthday last year—the college is consistently ranked among the nation’s top vet schools. It also operates the first, and largest, animal cancer center in the world. “We really started the idea that you could treat dogs with cancer instead of just throwing up your hands,” says Robert Ullrich, PhD, professor of oncology research at the Animal Cancer Center. “We’ve also been at the forefront of researching and treating spontaneous tumors in dogs, and translating that knowledge to human medicine.”
“We have grown in many ways and directions,” Robinson says, “but we’re still unique. Several other vet schools have added acupuncture or herbal medicine, but none have an approach solely committed to scientific and evidence-based explorations and scrutiny. And to my knowledge, no other schools have a dedicated faculty position for scientifically based complementary and alternative medicine.”
This is a big deal, she says, because more and more dog owners are looking into CAM for their pets. In fact, in 2006, CVMBS did a study of owners whose pets were being treated at its Animal Cancer Center and found that more than 75 percent were using complementary and alternative medical approaches, including herbs, supplements and acupuncture. Owners said they were looking for ways to improve their pets’ overall well-being as well as to improve immune function and reduce pain.
Unfortunately, the study also found that many owners didn’t tell their veterinarians that they were utilizing these remedies and didn’t ask veterinary experts for advice. This lack of communication creates potential for serious problems, such as drug interactions or overdose.
That’s where CVMBS’s program comes in. By conducting rigorous, science-based research and training vets in the proper use of alternative remedies, Robinson and her colleagues hope to expand the knowledge base regarding these therapies, and spread that knowledge to practicing veterinarians.
“There has been a lot of interest in the program, and it’s growing,” Robinson says. “Over a third of each veterinary medicine class takes our critical overview of CAM class, and many go on to take the ‘Medical Acupuncture for Veterinarians’ course.”
Late last year, Robinson spearheaded a joint effort with CSU electrical engineering students to build “SimPooch,” a simulated Labrador Retriever designed to help students learn correct acupuncture techniques. The life-size model, based on MRI data gathered from a real dog, reproduces bone, muscle, skin and fat in all their respective densities so that students can get realistic feedback as they practice the various techniques. In the next few months, the engineering students will complete the computer software that will both teach and test acupuncture students on their point-locating ability. They have already reproduced the head in a virtual reality environment that interfaces with the physical model.
It’s all part of Robinson’s science-based approach. “Anatomy is the foundation of medicine and of acupuncture,” she says. “We need to move away from the notion that acupuncture works by stimulating invisible energy systems and recognize its anatomical basis.” Looking ahead, Robinson says she anticipates an expansion into more research, “from nutraceuticals to herbs to acupuncture, laser therapy and more.”
And what does she say to skeptics? People who dismiss complementary and alternative therapies as nothing but hocus-pocus? “I tell them that I am as skeptical as they are. We are not here to promote CAM, but to study its effectiveness and measure its safety.”
High-Tech Meets High-Touch
“This truly is a state-of-the-art facility,” LaRue says. “We’ve been doing radiation therapy with dogs since 1957.” The latest innovation: a Trilogy Linear Accelerator, which is the first of its kind in any veterinary clinic or college in the world.
The Trilogy has the capacity to target tumors with a precise dose of radiation, one that is custom-fit to the tumor’s depth, shape and size, thus sparing healthy cells. It also has a built-in CT scanner and digital X-ray machine that allow doctors to monitor a tumor’s changing shape and position with each treatment. The Trilogy can even be programmed to deliver radiation timed to the dog’s respirations in order to prevent misfires if the tumor moves as the dog breathes.
“One type of cancer we’ve really struggled with in dogs is nasal tumors,” says LaRue. “Think about the shape of the dog’s head: You might have a tumor wrapping around the eyes or brain, or going all the way from the dog’s nose to the top of his head. These tumors can have a very complex anatomy.” Before now, she says, treating them was more than tricky, in part because doctors couldn’t administer a big enough dose of radiation for fear of damaging the all-too-important structures nearby. “Now we can get the dose high enough to get the tumor control we need,” she says. “We don’t want to put dogs through this if we’re not going to get cures.”
But while the treatments are space-age, dogs visiting the center are treated to an old-fashioned welcome and plenty of personal attention. “We think that the patients who come in should be happy,” says LaRue. So instead of a standard hospital setting, the center’s waiting area looks more like a doggie day care, with a safe area for dogs to play and relax while waiting for their treatments. “They really like it, and they’re a lot less stressed than the owners,” she says. Most dogs get lots of attention from LaRue’s staff as well. “They get very bonded to my staff and follow them around,” she says. Unlike human oncology patients, she says, dogs really can enjoy the treatment experience, and keeping it as low-stress as possible is one of the group’s goals.
The Supercluster essentially takes the business model of an economic cluster—Silicon Valley tech companies, for example, aggregated hubs of brainpower and marketing muscle—and applies it to biomedical research and veterinary medicine. Economic clusters create a kind of critical mass, where technology and production facilities attract other businesses and thus create a powerful momentum that benefits everybody.
The Cancer Supercluster includes the College of Veterinary Medicine, plus four others: the Colleges of Natural Sciences, Applied Human Sciences, Agricultural Sciences and Engineering. The program includes 65 faculty members from 12 departments who conduct research in all aspects of cancer treatment and prevention, including risk assessment, diagnosis, therapeutics and genomics (the study of the relationship between genetic structure and biological function).
Much of the Supercluster, however, is based on the work of the Animal Cancer Center. For example, research from the center is being applied to a new product that will be used in human medicine. “Often, in cancer, if you can identify specific changes in the chromosomes, you can help diagnose problems,” explains Ullrich, who has studied cancer and its genetic components for more than 30 years. “Sometimes, cancers involve taking part of one chromosome and moving it to another, something called translocation. In other cases, part of the chromosome becomes inverted—this happens in some cancers and also in certain birth defects.” Until now, he says, scientists couldn’t identify these changes. But, using 15 years of research at the Animal Cancer Center, a new Supercluster company is developing a method of identifying these chromosomal inversions, and plans to launch a new birth defect–screening product for humans. “The next thing is to identify these inversions in cancer, which will help us create new markers for diagnosis and new targets for therapy, both in dogs and in people,” he says.
Applying an innovation in veterinary medicine to human patients is a fairly novel idea; most often, the protocols go the other way, says Ullrich. “Typically, we take things that have been used in humans and try them with dogs. The difference here is that we’re developing things that are so cutting-edge that they’re being moved into the human arena.”
This, perhaps, is the most compelling aspect of the work that’s being done at CVMBS, in the Animal Cancer Center as well as the Supercluster program: Developing treatments that can help today’s animal (and human) patients as well as tomorrow’s. “We are absolutely a research facility,” says LaRue. “Realistically, we couldn’t have invested in all of this equipment solely for the purpose of treating animals. But our translational research is invaluable. We can evaluate how these patients respond to treatment, and this information can go directly into the human clinic, or back to our own practice, where we can use it to help more animals down the road.”
Founded in 1907 as the Department of Veterinary Science; renamed in 1967
Number of applicants (2007): 1,604
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Photographs courtesy of Colorado State University