“I never understood the pet-to-parent relationship until I got Malcolm,” said Luke Robinson during his day of meetings and tour of the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital. “A friend’s sister had adopted him from a shelter and was too busy to take care of him so I said I would take him in.”
Robinson agreed to adopt the puppy, a Great Pyrenees named Malcolm, and became a dog owner for the first time.
Diagnosed with osteosarcoma (bone cancer) in 2004, Malcolm completed two years of treatment but succumbed to the disease in 2006. Robinson’s pledge to his beloved dog was to raise awareness for canine cancer, its causes and treatments. To do that, he decided on a 2,300-mile walk during which he’d be accompanied by his current “boys” – two Great Pyrenees dogs named Hudson and Murphy. In March, 2008 the three set off on their cross-country trek from Austin, Texas to Boston, Massachusetts.
“There’s really four of us,” said Robinson. “Malcolm’s with us every day,” he said, pulling a circular charm from around his neck that’s filled with some of the dog’s ashes.
This week, on December 1, that journey made a stop in Philadelphia and Robinson – and his dogs -- spent the day at Penn Veterinary Medicine.
As a leading institution in canine cancer research, treatment and pain management, Penn Vet clinicians, students and researchers generously shared their knowledge and work in their fields of expertise with Robinson. He toured the Ryan Veterinary Hospital and learned about Penn’s oncology service, including novel therapeutics for the treatment of canine cancer.
Robinson’s visit to the oncology unit was led by Dr. Karin Sorenmo, head of small animal oncology service at the hospital. There he learned about Dr. Sorenmo’s research and the Penn Vet Shelter Canine Mammary Tumor Program, which aims to care for shelter dogs with mammary tumors. Again, research here is translational to human medicine, said Sorenmo, as mammary tumors in dogs and breast cancer in women have certain similarities.
Robinson also had an opportunity to visit the School’s Veterinary Clinical Investigation Center (VCIC), which conducts numerous studies on canine and feline cancer, some of which have been adaptable to humans. It was at the VCIC that Robinson learned of Penn Vet’s pain management trial for canine osteosarcoma patients. The treatment involves injecting plant-based neurotoxins into the fluid surrounding a dog’s spinal cord to block the sensation of pain coming from the tumor.
“We are very encouraged by the success we have had so far with many of our canine patients,” said Molly Love, clinical research nurse and coordinator of the trial. “Trials using this same treatment have just started for people with end-stage cancer pain. We rely on owners to evaluate their dog’s pain using questionnaires developed by Dr Dottie Brown, the director of the VCIC, for evaluating bone pain in dogs.”
“I think what you’re doing is brilliant,” said Dr. Nicola Mason, assistant professor of medicine and pathobiology who spoke with Robinson about how his journey got started, where it’s going next and her own role in researching immunotherapeutic strategies to fight cancer cells in domestic dogs.
Robinson also had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Kathryn E. Michel, associate professor of nutrition and medical director of the hospital, during which time he asked about the probability of a food-to-cancer link in dogs. “I always suggest that people feed their dogs a variety of foods,” said Dr. Michel, “and, yes, I think there needs to be more work done in the nutritional realm to see if there is that food-to-cancer link.”
During the day Robinson also had an opportunity to meet with Kit Feldman, freelance writer, friend of Penn Vet and Bellwether contributor who is working on a book about the human-animal bond.
For more information on Luke Robinson, his dogs and his Austin to Boston trek, visit www.2dogs2000miles.org.
For more information on the Veterinary Clinical Investigation Center (VCIC), visit http://research.vet.upenn.edu/Default.aspx?alias=research.vet.upenn.edu/vcic.