Watch CBS News

Could Canine Patients Help Find A Cure For One Of The Deadliest Cancers?

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Glioblastoma is a very aggressive form of brain cancer that's usually fatal.

It's the type of cancer that plagued late senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy as well as Beau Biden, the late son of former Vice President Joe Biden. But scientists are hoping man's best friend can help find a cure for men -- and women -- diagnosed with glioblastoma.

Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center was recently given funding to research a new experimental treatment on dogs who've been diagnosed with brain cancer -- in hopes that the treatment will ultimately save humans.

What Is Glioblastoma? How Scientists Are Working To Cure This Aggressive Form Of Cancer

It combines heat and radiation to directly destroy cancer cells and the hope is, if it works in canines it can then be tested on humans.

Belle, a beautiful 9-year-old shepherd, was very recently diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Veterinarian Dara Kraitchman, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Medicine Department of Radiology and Radiological Science, diagnosed Belle using an MRI after the dog began having seizures. Right now, there's very little that can be done to save her life other than invasive surgery that often kills the animal it's attempting to cure.

"No one wants their pet to be in pain -- with surgery, there's always pain," Kraitchman said.

"It would be nice if we could communicate with the dog and we knew what the dog really thought, but we don't have that," said Belle's owner Charles Cummings, a nose and throat oncologist at Hopkins.

So, Belle's owners have decided not to try surgery and there's little else that can be done. But, scientists are hoping that there will be in the future.

A team of scientists from the Kimmel Cancer Center have been working for more than five years developing a technique that they hope could, in the future, save Belle and other dogs with cancerous brain tumors. It uses iron oxide nanoparticles.

A nanoparticle is a little over a millionth times smaller than a cell -- a human cell.

Dr. Robert Ivkov has developed a way to take an iron oxide nanoparticle, inject it into a tumor and then heat it using a magnetic field. He created this machine where, so far, they're experimenting on mice.

"The nanoparticles, if we've already injected them into the tumor -- the mouse will go inside here and then we apply the magnetic field to treat the tumor," said Ivkov.

The key is to control the heat using probes he developed because, as he demonstrated with a screwdriver, the coils create a powerful magnetic field.

"The screwdriver basically went from room temperature to a couple of thousands of degrees in a matter of seconds," Ivkov said.

Once heated, the tumor is then directly radiated. The combination of heat and radiation has long been known to damage cancer cells.

"The problem we had before was it was very difficult to heat an individual part of the brain and not injure the person. You have to heat large areas," said Hopkins radiation oncologist Dr. Lawrence R. Kleinberg said.

Denise Koch: Sounds like you're very hopeful about this new treatment?

Dr. Kleinberg: These nanoparticles can be given right to the tumor and so we can heat just the area we should be heating while the radiation is given.

Kleinberg is a part of the team that will treat canine patients using an MRI machine like the ones used on humans.

"Inside the brain, no matter what we do we've been unable to cure very many people at all and that's the reason a break-through would be very exciting," he said.

Ivkov has built a second machine for canine patients, dogs whose owners decide because of an otherwise terminal diagnosis, they want to be part of this clinical study.

"What we learn in the dogs we can then translate to humans," Ivkov said.

Unfortunately for Belle, she won't even have the option for this treatment.

"If this was a 3-year-old dog, I think we would consider very strongly doing the protocol," said Cummings, Belle's owner. "Because she's a 9-year-old dog, and shepherds don't have a life span more than 9 or 10 years, that comes into the decision-making process for us."

While Belle's family decide she's simply too old to go through this protocol, it could offer real hope for other pet owners whose dogs get this difficult diagnosis.

"This is kind of nice because we're going to do it first in pets and then, if people are lucky, they'll get the same treatment, too," said Dr. Kraitchman.

The team at Hopkins is hoping to research the nanoparticle treatment on five or six dogs. If your pet is diagnosed with a brain tumor and you want to try this treatment, reach out to the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.