Canine cure: Bellingham veterinarians pioneer bone-marrow treatment for dogs

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 16, 2014 

A decade ago, the San Juan Island owners of Comet brought their beloved golden retriever to Drs. Edmund Sullivan and Theresa Westfall at Bellingham Veterinary to see if Comet's diagnosis of lymphoma could be treated as something other than a death sentence.

The odds weren't good.

At the time, lymphoma was considered incurable, with chemotherapy treatment only a temporary solution because the cancer nearly always re-emerged and resulted in death within a year.

Sullivan and Westfall, who are married, were determined to help. After talking to Dr. Rainer Storb, an expert on human lymphoma at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, they decided to attempt a bone marrow transplant on Comet. They spent six months visiting the center to learn how.

After removing and preserving bone marrow stem cells in a painless procedure, the cells are stored for re-injection after radiation therapy. Through DNA analysis, the patient's cells are checked for the presence of tumor cells. Sometimes, blood transfusions are needed to provide platelets and red blood cells during recovery.

It's a common procedure in humans, but hadn't been tried with dogs.

It worked. Comet survived.

Since Comet's recovery, more than 100 dogs have been cured with the treatment through Bellingham Veterinary, and three more veterinary hospitals around the country have been trained in the procedure. The 50 percent cure rate is considered extraordinary.

"I didn't invent the procedure," Sullivan says. "The knowledge was already out there and we just applied it to dogs."

Lymphoma is one of the most common cancers found in dogs. Any breed can be affected, but golden retrievers, Labs, boxers and Boston terriers are the most prone.

Sullivan and Westfall attribute much of their success to the local community of animal lovers.

"It's only through the generosity of hundreds of pet owners donating to the Northwest Veterinary blood bank that we were able to do this and continue doing it," Sullivan says. "Without these blood donor dogs, we couldn't do this."

Sullivan and Westfall's research involves the collection and expansion of anti-cancer T cells, which are infused into the patient after the bone marrow transplant.

"The research we are doing in leukemia and resistant lymphoma may someday help humans," Sullivan says. "With dogs, we know the outcome of this therapy within a few months, rather than many years, as it takes in people."

That discrepancy can be heart-breaking.

"We got a call from a human diagnostic lab that also reviews our canine patients," Sullivan says. "The pathologist was crying. Each day they have to tell the doctors of children, parents and seniors the terrible news that their patients are dying of disease progression, and here I have a dog getting better."

When Sullivan was growing up on a dairy farm in Montana, the most important person he knew was the local veterinarian. Sullivan announced his intention after high school to enter veterinary school, but a counselor advised him that "every farm kid in Montana wanted that" and that he should find something else to do.

Sullivan was undeterred. Now he and his wife are pioneers treating dogs.

"It was worth it in the end," he says.

Taimi Dunn Gorman is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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