Sick dogs, no matter how smart, can't make their own decisions about expensive and dangerous medical care. So Tina, a cinnamon-colored chow chow, may be lucky that her owner, Mike Otworth, had been in the same position she's in: staring down a potentially fatal cancer.
Tina, who has lymphoma, arrives in Raleigh from Melbourne, Fla. on Sunday to become the first of what's expected to be many dogs who will receive bone marrow transplants at N.C. State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Only a handful of the operations – which are risky but can cure the otherwise fatal cancer – have been done in a clinical setting in the United States, and none on the East Coast. The college hopes to perform about one transplant a month at first, then increase the rate after it gets more experience.
Otworth said that when he heard that NCSU was starting to offer the cutting-edge treatment, he immediately remembered when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. An effective drug had been in use for just five years. He was fortunate beyond words, he said, to develop the disease at a point in human history when there was finally a good chance to survive.
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Tina is 10 years old and in otherwise excellent health, making her a good candidate for the bone marrow operation, said Dr. Steven Suter, an assistant professor of oncology.
Suter helped broker a deal with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., which donated three of the expensive machines required for the operation.
These leukophoresis machines, which had been used to treat humans, will harvest stem cells from the dogs, which then undergo radiation treatment that kills the cancer cells as well as healthy marrow.
If everything goes well, Tina will probably be at the school about two weeks, Suter said.
The operation is expensive, about $15,000. Suter hopes to find donors, perhaps corporate ones, to help reduce the cost.
Otworth said the expense was a serious consideration, but even if things go wrong for Tina, he said, at least the college will gain valuable experience.
“If my dog helps Dr. Suter achieve his goal of making the treatment more affordable and more available to other dogs, that's worthwhile, regardless of the outcome for Tina,” he said.
Suter said he expects the transplant to cure more than 50 percent of the dogs treated, and said he's happy to have an alternative to offer the owners of his patients, since other treatments can only prolong life, not cure the disease.