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Canine cancer drug could lead to cure for late John McCain’s tumor

A new treatment for the brain cancer that killed Senator John McCain over the weekend is showing great promise in its first patients: dogs. 

Glioblastoma is a notoriously aggressive and difficult form of cancer to treat. 

These tumors are made up of a wide variety of different kinds of cells, so drugs that effectively attack some are useless against others and the cancer ‘learns’ which types of cells are immune to the drugs, replicating these more prolifically. 

A new injection being developed and tested in dogs by Wake Forest University and Virginia Tech, however, seems to ‘cover’ and attack all of the cancer’s cells – a potential breakthrough for animals and humans alike.

A clinical trial at Virginia Tech is treating glioblastomas in dogs like Emily – and showing promise that could one day help humans suffering from the cancer that killed John McCain

Dogs diagnosed with glioblastoma face no better odds than their human counterparts.  

Humans have about a 50 percent chance of surviving a year after being diagnosed with the cancer. John McCain lived just a little longer than that. Dogs will probably live only a few months longer. 

But a team of veterinarians, bioengineers, doctors and multidisciplinary scientists is turning that around for animals.    

A clinical trial based out of Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine has extended the lives of participating, cancer-ridden dogs.  

The trial’s early days showed so much promise that the National Institutes of Health awarded a $9.2 million grant to collaborators at the veterinary medical school and Wake Forest Baptist Medical in the hopes that they could continue to hone a treatment that might one day save human lives too. 

In actuality, the trial is actually composed of four different approaches to fighting cancer. 

One uses a tiny, targeted and powerful blast of energy to ablate or destroy the membranes of only the cancerous cells. 

Another branch has been developing an extremely fine ‘microneedle device’ to inject chemotherapy directly into a tumor withut damaging other tissues. 


Glioblastomas are the most common cancerous brain tumours in adults.

They are fast growing and likely to spread. 

Glioblastomas’ cause is unknown but may be related to a sufferer’s genes if mutations result in cells growing uncontrollably, forming a tumour.

Treatment is usually surgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible, followed by a combination of radio- and chemotherapy (chemoradiation).

It can be difficult to remove all of the growth as glioblastomas have tendrils that extend to other regions of the brain. These are targeted via chemoradiation. 

Glioblastomas are often resistant to treatment as they are usually made up of different types of cells. Therefore, medication will kill off some cells and not others. 

The average survival time is between 12 and 18 months.

Only 20 per cent of patients live longer than a year and just three per cent survive over three years.

Source: The Brain Tumour Charity

A third part of the research is working on finding the direct route – and right vehicle to follow it – from the blood straight to the brain. 

The last research sub-group is working on a drug that attacks the most problematic types of cells in the complex cancer.

These portions of the tumor can quickly become treatment resistant. The tumor has evolved mechanisms to identify its toughest sub-cells and divert energy to the replication of those, while letting the easier-to-target cells die off. 

In the most recent iterations of the trial – still recruiting and being conducted in dogs – this last treatment has proven to be the central key to fighting back against gliogblastoma. 

Laura Kamienski was devastated when she found out her Portuguese water dog, Emily had the deadly cancer, she told CBS Miami. 

The best treatments already available to local vets was going to cost her $10,000 and probably wouldn’t give Kamienski much more time with her beloved companion any way. 

She splashed out for the clinical trial, enrolling Emily to get the hail-Mary injection. 

Over the last six weeks, she has watched – quite literally – as Emily’s tumor shrinks.

The veterinarians at Virginia Tech monitor the tumor using MRI as they treat it. 

‘We can watch the drug cover the tumor. And so we know we’ve achieved the treatment goals of actually targeting all the cancer cells,’ Dr John Rossmeisl, Professor Neurology and Neurosurgery at Virginia Tech told CBS. 

Emily has stopped seizing at home, and the doctors treating her have watched the camera string progressively. 

‘The only way this could have been better if it was totally gone. This is really good news,’ Dr Rossmeisl toldCBS. 

Dr Rossmeisl, his team and even the NIH are watching the ill animals more closely than ever, hoping against hope that the same treatment that has given Kamienski back her four-legged companion could some day save – or at least extend – the lives of glioblastoma sufferers like John McCain was.