N.C. State to offer marrow transplants for dogs

N.C. State University is about to become the first university in the country to offer bone marrow transplants for dogs with lymphoma.

The university's College of Veterinary Medicine plans to begin performing the procedure within about four weeks, said Dr. Steven Suter, an assistant professor of oncology. Suter arranged for N.C. State to accept three donated leukophoresis machines from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

The machines, once used to treat humans, will harvest healthy stem cells from canine patients, who must undergo drug therapy to drive the cells from the bone marrow. The stem cells then will be reintroduced into the bloodstreams of the patients, who also must have total body radiation to kill any residual cancer cells.

The charge for the procedure: $15,000. That's not including the cost of other veterinary appointments and tests, plus the chemotherapy needed to send the disease into clinical remission.

But Suter said many people already are paying $10,000 or more on medical care for dogs suffering from lymphoma, even though the animals survive 12 to 16 months, at best.

By contrast, he expects bone marrow transplants to cure at least half the dogs who undergo the procedure.

“If you can say your dog has a 50 percent chance of being cured, I think it's going to be a no-brainer for a lot of people,” Suter said.

The process of extracting the stem cells is painless for dogs, though it might not be so for owners. Consequently, NCSU is seeking donors to help underwrite the cost of treating ailing pets.

“We really understand this is a lot of money for a lot of people,” Suter said. “We're looking for some corporation or some person to step up and help these clients.”

Suter said he expects the machines will be used to treat about one dog a month in the beginning, with many patients coming from outside North Carolina.

To be eligible, a dog must weigh at least about 55 pounds. That leaves out Chihuahuas, but it includes Labrador and golden retrievers, which are more prone to lymphoma.

The machines also will be used to harvest plasma, platelets and red blood cells to expand blood banking.

About 80 to 85 percent of his oncology patients have lymphoma, Suter said, and currently they all eventually die.

“I got tired of watching that happen,” he said. “I decided the time had come to try something different.”