Border collies are very smart — 11-year-old collie Bambi is even helping further the field of veterinary oncology.

Bambi is enrolled in a clinical trial at the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center (ACCRC) in Roanoke, one of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s three hospitals. In the clinical trial, veterinary radiation oncologist Ilektra Athanasiadi aims to evaluate the safety and feasibility of treating oral cancers with a device that delivers chemotherapy directly to the tumor.   

Brian Martin and his family had owned Bambi since 2012 when they went to see a litter of puppies.

“They say, ‘Let the dogs pick you.’ Bambi came up to my son, and that was that,” said Martin. Martin and his family took Bambi and her brother Bandit home, where they have been ever since.  

True to her breed, Bambi has a competitive streak: “Every time it rains, she has a battle with the raindrops, trying to catch the drops as they fall on the ground — it’s like she thinks she can win.” 

Last fall, the family noticed a growth in Bambi’s mouth and took her to their veterinarian Caroline Snuffer with Hanging Rock Animal Hospital in Roanoke. It was cancer. Canine oral tumors vary widely, but malignant melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common cancerous tumor types. Right now, the treatment for these cancers is surgical removal, which removes the entire tumor with clean margins—but surgery is not always practical. Sometimes, the tumor’s location or size makes removing it impossible, which means that radiation and chemotherapy are the only options left.

In Bambi’s case, the tumor could not be removed entirely and began to grow back after surgery. Since Bambi is an older dog, the Martins did not want to pursue an invasive treatment or systemic chemo. Still, when their local veterinarian suggested Athanasiadi’s clinical trial, they decided to enroll in the hopes that it could extend Bambi’s life.

“We had surgery with our local veterinarian in November, but by May, we noticed the lump in her mouth was returning, “Martin said. “Our veterinarian gets notifications from Virginia Tech about studies and trials, and they were looking for dogs with cancerous growths in the mouth. So, we fit right in.”

This study tests a device, developed by Focal Medical, that could increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy by delivering the chemo drugs directly to the tumor instead of into the bloodstream. This system has been used for other cancers, and Athanasiadi hopes it could help dogs like Bambi. 

Bambi is still undergoing treatment, but her tumor has shrunk, and her mouth looks healthier, no longer having a black, necrotic color. Bambi’s tissue and blood tests so far have shown that the drug is targeting the tumor, and not spilling into the bloodstream. Martin is happy to note that Bambi’s energy level has not changed — she still loves their daily routine of playing ball. 

Martin is thankful the trial has a lot of potential. “We knew the study might be able to help other dogs, but you know we’ve been told this might also help humans,” Martin said. “So, well, that’s pretty powerful stuff.”

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


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