Helen is an 8½-year old gentle giant who’s fighting osteosarcoma and, through participation in a clinical trial through the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center (ACCRC), is helping develop a new cancer treatment. 

Her owners have a 1-year-old son enrolled in a clinical trial for a rare liver disease, which gave them the idea to also enroll their dog Helen in a clinical trial.

The Animal Cancer Care and Research Center offers medical, surgical, and radiation oncology and frontline cancer diagnostics and treatment for dogs and cats. It is one of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s three hospitals. Located on Virginia Tech's Health Sciences and Technology campus in Roanoke, the center seeks to advance cancer treatment in pets and people alike.

Osteosarcoma, the most common form of canine bone cancer, typically affects large and giant breed dogs like Helen. Helen is a Cane Corso, an Italian breed of mastiff, a breed that serves as companions, guard dogs, or to protect livestock. 

On the other hand — "Helen's job is to be a couch potato,” said Nicole Py of Moorestown, New Jersey, Helen’s owner.

Dog with three legs walking.
Helen walking after her amputation surgery. Photo courtesy of Nicole Py.

Helen has moonlighted as an actress and model, appearing in an independent film and a cable docudrama Legends & Lies. Py and her husband made a conscious effort to socialize Helen as a puppy, and, as a result, she is a friendly dog and an irreplaceable part of the family.

When Helen was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, Py and her husband Brian Atkins were not sure what to do. Their son Ottis was born with a rare liver disease that requires treatment, and the additional high costs of veterinary cancer care were a massive barrier.

Because Ottis is enrolled in a clinical trial for treatment for his biliary atresia, Py got an idea: Why not find a clinical trial for Helen to ease the financial burden of treatment?

She soon discovered the work of Joanne Tuohy, assistant professor of surgical oncology at the veterinary college, whose clinical trial treats canine osteosarcoma with histotripsy. Histotripsy is a noninvasive technique that uses sound waves to create bubbles in a targeted area. Then, it makes the bubbles expand and pop, disintegrating the diseased tissue. In the future, this translational research may be used on humans to treat cancer.

Dog on gurney being pushed by two women.
Helen getting a ride on the gurney after her amputation surgery. Photo courtesy of Nicole Py.
Dog in goggles riding is a bike carrier.
Helen going for a bike ride. Photo courtesy of Nicole Py.

“Knowing how well our baby did, and the positive results with his clinical trial, and knowing that she could help other animals and humans in the future — I thought, why not Helen?" said Py.

In this particular study, histotripsy was used in conjunction with amputation, which was performed at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Blacksburg,  to try to stop the cancer’s spread,

Py, Helen, and Ottis made the 8-hour drive from New Jersey so that Helen could participate in the histotripsy clinical trial. Py said that the beautiful campus at Blacksburg helped quell any anxieties she had about Helen’s treatment. 

"Working with the team was great. They were very informative and friendly, and they helped us through the entire process — we knew what to anticipate,” said Py.

Py said that the most difficult part of the experience was simply making the trip with a baby in tow. Helen bonded with the hospital staff, and she loved getting a ride on the gurney “like a queen.”

"Helen touched the hearts of the staff and the doctors there just as much as they touched hers,” said Py.

"She’s a big dog, and that can be intimidating for people, but once you touch her soft fur, you fall in love with her.”

After the surgery, Py and Ottis got to sit with Helen to reassure her. Since they live states away in New Jersey, their local vet is covering post-surgery care and sending lab results to the team at the veterinary college. This flexibility has been key to getting Helen on the road to recovery from the comfort of her own home. 

"Helen has been such an important part of our lives, so when I found this amazing group of people that were giving dogs a new opportunity to try a different kind of treatment, I jumped at the chance to do it. I love that the treatment that she got is helping others.”

Written by Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. '21, a writer with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


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