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Texas A&M Research Makes Immunotherapy for the Dogs

Promising results may make chemotherapy an obsolete cancer treatment.

Laura-And-Wagner-Curacao

Abled.com Co-Founder Laura Meddens and her guide dog Wagner in her home country of Curaçao.

A joint research project underway at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and the MD Anderson Cancer Center is not only innovating a promising new way to fight cancer, but it is also helping the fight for human disability rights the world over.

How can one project do all that? Through Wagner, a guide dog for Abled.com Co-Founder Laura Meddens. After losing her eyesight, Meddens learned first-hand how poorly the disabled are treated in her home country Curaçao.

“They put them away, basically,” said Meddens. “They just put them behind closed doors. You don’t see them because their families are ashamed of them.”

Meddens’ vision impairment led her to meet her guide dog Wagner, who became her “great liberator.” Together, they founded the Laura and Wagner Foundation, which is dedicated to raising awareness of disabled rights issues around the world. Meddens is also building a digital ecosystem for differently-abled persons via Abled.com.

Living with Lymphoma
In late 2010, tragedy struck when doctors in Amsterdam diagnosed Wagner with b-cell lymphoma just as Meddens was completely losing her sight.

“He went through chemo sessions [in Amsterdam],” Abled.com Co-Founder Linden Soles said. “The veterinarians there said that the tumors would likely come back after a year, which they did. At that time they were recommending to Laura that she should put him to sleep, but she switched him to a raw food diet, eliminating all carbs and he improved.”

Dr. Wilson-Robles

Dr. Wilson-Robles (left) and Dr. Colleen O’Connor (center) welcome Laura Meddens and Wagner to Texas A&M for his treatment.

Desperate to save the beloved guide dog when his tumors returned, Meddens and Soles investigated experimental cancer research on the Internet. There, they discovered the joint project between the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“We all felt it was worth the effort to try and raise the funds to get him over here and be part of a very important study,” said Soles. “It goes way beyond Waggie. There’s a benefit hopefully that will come in the near future for humans because this type of cancer in dogs is so similar to that of humans, especially in children.”

The project uses dogs as a research model because they more closely match a human’s physiology than typical laboratory mice, but that’s not all that’s different about this research.

The goal of the project is to restore the patient’s immune system to a normal state, which would allow the body to fight the cancer on its own.

“That’s one of the main purposes of the immune system,” Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences Assistant Professor Heather Wilson-Robles said. “Any time you have a cell doing something it shouldn’t be doing, if it’s not programmed to kill itself, the immune system will try to do that for you.”

That doesn’t happen in cancer patients. Cancer inhibits cells in the immune system, T-cells, that actually do the monitoring and killing, meaning that even though the body may be able to identify the problem, it can’t do anything about it.

To counter this, researchers take a sample of blood, multiply the T-cells from a few million to several billions and then infuse that blood back into the patient.

T-cells

Researchers took a sample of blood from Wagner, multiplied the T-cells (pictured) from a few million to several billions and then infused the blood back into him to fight his cancer cells.

Surprising Success
“Canine lymphoma is so aggressive that we didn’t actually expect that it would improve our dogs’ survival,” Wilson-Robles said. “We just thought that we’d be able to show that we can expand [the T-cells] out safely and infuse them back safely.”

Imagine the surprise, then, when the dogs in this phase of the project started to show incredibly positive results.

“We’d witness that the dog is alive and by analyzing the blood we can see the infused T-cells,” said MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Chief of Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplantation Laurence Cooper. “Maybe it’s actually working!”

Even though results are already promising, researchers are most excited for the next phase of the project, which will use genetically modified T-cells to specifically target cancer cells.

A targeted, guided immune system may completely obviate the use of chemotherapy in cancer treatment.

“That’s our hope, in the next trial that we won’t need chemotherapy,” said Cooper. “Dr. Colleen O’Connor who ran the first trial is making a more potent T-cell, so we won’t need to manipulate the tumor cell [with chemotherapy] to make a better target. We can make the T-cell a more effective weapon to directly target the cancerous cells.”

Fight the Good Fight
After receiving this treatment, Wagner showed great improvement and the T-cell infusions put him into remission. Unfortunately, the process also weakened his immune system and he was diagnosed with Ehrlichia (a disease spread by ticks). With his condition quickly deteriorating, Meddens made the heartbreaking decision to end his suffering on May 21. Though deeply saddened by the loss of her brave friend, she hopes that knowledge gained from Wagner’s T-cell treatments will soon assist other dogs and human cancer patients as T-cell therapies are refined.

By Lawrence Sonntag

Learn more about The Laura and Wagner Foundation and Abled.com

View projects currently underway at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences

You can support groundbreaking research projects like this at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences with the gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation. Request your A&M Support Kit to learn how you can help.

Contact

O.J. “Bubba” Woytek ’64
Assistant Vice President for Development
College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences
(979) 845-9043

Guy Sheppard ’76
Director of Development
College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences
(979) 845-9043

Chastity Rodgers
Director of Development
College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences
(979) 845-9043

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