I’ve got an in to lots of new stuff happening in the world of oncology. Two of my classmates from back at Penn are tops in this field at the academic level. And they’re both working hard to find a cure for lymphoma in dogs.

That’s why I jumped at the chance to blog about lymphoma when BFF Dr. Steve Suter (VMD, MS, ACVIM-certified and PhD) e-mailed me his latest excellent and thoroughly watchable media spot on the subject. Sure, he’s a lot more funny and personable in real life, but it’s not about him, after all. It’s about his cancer patients. 

But here he is in his video, anyway:

According to my favorite client resource, Veterinary Partner,  

“Lymphoma is a rapidly growing malignancy that is able to go and grow anywhere where there is lymph tissue. This is virtually every organ in the body. Eventually, the cancer will infiltrate an organ to such an extent that that organ fails (often this is the bone marrow or the liver). The patient loses his/her appetite, vomits or gets diarrhea, weakens and dies.”

Sounds horrible. And it is. More so because many of the affected dogs are young and otherwise healthy. Currently, there’s no cure for canine lymphoma that’s readily available for dogs. But it’s a very common cancer. Again, Veterinary Partner’s take:

“The “typical” canine lymphoma patient is a middle-aged dog brought to the veterinarian because one or more lumps have been found. The veterinarian rapidly determines that all of the peripheral lymph nodes (those near the skin surface) are enlarged and firm. Usually the dog has not been showing any signs of illness. The next step is a blood panel and urinalysis to more completely assess the patient’s health and one or more lymph nodes are aspirated or biopsied to confirm the diagnosis of lymphoma.”

But the demographics of lymphoma have changed over the last ten years. No longer is the middle-aged patient the norm. Increasingly, patients are young dogs in the absolute prime of their lives. Indeed, Dr. Suter reports that most of his patients are 4-5 years old. 

There is some hope, however. Though most untreated dogs live only two months from the time the diagnosis is made, our humane chemotherapy protocols developed specifically for dogs can increase the comfortable life of our patients for 7 to 12 months. In dog years, that’s equivalent to an average of five years of your life––a not insignificant length of time from a dog’s perspective.

That’s why we urge you to consider the widely disseminated protocols almost every veterinarian can implement. Sure, it’s always best to see an internal medicine specialist or an oncologist, but if you can’t afford the specialist’s $5-$10 K price-tag, lymphoma treatment can usually be had for about $2,000-$4,000 at your regular vet’s––even less if you’re able to find a deal on the meds yourself (though you should know that many veterinarians won’t work this way and I don’t blame them).

But enough about the disease and it’s now-routine treatment’s cost. This post is about canine lymphoma’s new options. And it involves the newest thing to hit veterinary medicine’s university settings: a cure. 

Yes, it’s true. Some patients can be cured the same way humans are: with bone marrow transplants. Though the procedure at North Carolina State University’s oncology department runs about $13,000-$15,000, a growing number of pet owners feel it’s worth a shot at an actual cure. Chemotherapy-based palliation of lymphoma is great. But a chance at a real live, lengthy life is undeniably alluring. 

Though not all cases will qualify, it’s worth looking into. Here’s the skinny:

Dr. Suter first filters out all the important stem cells from the dog’s blood then applies a beam of radiation to kill all (or most) of the rapidly-dividing cancer cells in the dog’s body. Fresh cells are later fed back into the patient. 

Here he is describing the radiation beam's trajectory:

And now describing the bone marrow transplant machine's workings:

According to Dr. Suter, “[This method of treatment] tends to make the overall first remission time longer but [currently] does not cure the vast majority of dogs.” 

But he believes that the new procedure could increase the cure rate to 50%. And when you consider that the rate of actual cures using conventional methods of lymphoma treatment are reportedly 0%-2%, that’s a BIG deal. 

Though he’s now sticking with patients that weigh over 45-50 pounds and have received enough chemotherapy to put the disease into remission, here’s what he has to say about his current work:

“We think these dogs will do better than other dogs, and we really want to work through the protocol...I believe if we are careful with our patient population initially, it’ll be a boon for dogs across the country.”

Right now the technique requires that dogs be larger because the machines required don’t service smaller ones. But he’s confident that if this works out he’ll be making it work for smaller dogs. After all, kids as young as 18 months are treated with this technique. So why not smaller dogs?

Referencing the initial dog-based research that allowed bone marrow transplants to treat human patients, Dr. Suter offers us this heartening statement:

“This is a really fantastic opportunity that allows us to give back to dogs something they helped us develop 30 years ago.”

And I, for one, am blitheringly proud of him (can you tell?).