“I can’t believe you gave chemotherapy to your dog!” Eileen Eisenhower has heard this statement countless times on the job as an oncology nurse at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA). The Haddonfield, N.J., resident works in the Outpatient Infusion Department at the center’s Philadelphia location and spends her workday providing care to patients and their families, many of whom share stories of the dog waiting for them back home. What Eisenhower’s patients don’t realize is that the treatment they’re receiving may have been developed, in part, thanks to a research study jump-started by their nurse’s Rhodesian Ridgeback, Kyra.
On New Year’s Day 2007, Eisenhower — who happens to be my youngest sister — took Kyra for a walk and noticed a golf ball-sized lump near the bitch’s left rear hock. “I knew the lump wasn’t there the day before,” she says. “I knew what I was looking at.” She cut the walk short, went home, sat down at the computer and typed the word, “lymphoma.” There it was. Eisenhower’s beloved 8-year-old champion had cancer.
Eisenhower spent the day researching treatment options for one of the most common of all canine cancers. “I discovered that the University of Pennsylvania was developing an immune therapy,” she says. Penn was working with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHoP) to develop a “cancer vaccine” that might one day be used in the treatment of pediatric lymphoma.
“I called them first thing Monday morning,” she says. Fortunately for Kyra — and countless two- and four-legged patients ever since — the timing couldn’t have been better. Penn’s research team had been waiting for “patient zero” to arrive when Kyra walked through the doors. The reason the Ridgeback was selected was due to her having received absolutely no prior treatment. “I took her to Penn directly,” reports Eisenhower. “She became the very first dog to test the [canine cancer] vaccine.”
In a Philadelphia Inquirer article, published on November 12, 2007, staff writer Marie McCullough reported on Kyra’s participation in the trial. “Man’s best friend is becoming increasingly important to the study and treatment of human cancers,” McCullough wrote. “Cancer researchers have long taken advantage of the similarities between canine and human anatomy and physiology … Fifty years ago, dogs helped pioneer concepts and techniques for human blood stem cell transplants, also known as bone marrow transplants.” Unlike the experimental dogs used in older studies, Kyra participated in the program as an outpatient, spending every night at home with Eisenhower and her husband, Brian, and the couple’s two young sons, Greg and Sean. “Sean was not yet in school, so he went with me to every single treatment,” Eisenhower recalls.
The treatment Kyra received was a partnership between veterinary and medical oncologists, academic researchers and the pharmaceutical industry. These healthcare professionals were conducting a “comparative oncology” initiative to study naturally occurring cancers in animals as models for human disease. Specifically, Kyra — and several other dogs that eventually participated in the study — provided valuable information for the development of a therapy that could be used to treat pediatric lymphoma. As a mother of two small children, Eisenhower grasped the clinical trial’s importance. “At the time I was treating kids with hemophilia and saw first-hand the way that that disease impacted entire families,” she says.
The decision to participate in the study was an easy one for Eisenhower. “I wanted to provide Kyra with the best treatment, of course,” she says. “But I also understood the importance of the [Penn Vet] trial.” No longer considered “experimental” today, the treatment Kyra received eight years ago is now regularly used to treat cancers in both people and their pets. Following a course of chemotherapy, patients are given a vaccine made from his or her own cancer cells. This vaccine stimulates the immune system to recognize and attack the cancer should it reappear anywhere in the body. The relapses that generally occur following traditional chemotherapy are frequently staved off through the administration of a vaccine.
Kyra was one of the lucky ones. Her life was spared. The red wheaten dog lived out her remaining days watching over Greg and Sean, dying just short of her 12th birthday. A postmortem revealed that she was cancer-free. Today, when a patient asks Eisenhower why she went to such lengths to treat her dog’s cancer, she just smiles as she administers the vaccine. “I’d do it all over again,” she says.