Vince’s dog, Casey, a 9-year-old German Shepherd mix, is one of the great loves of his life.
A year ago, Vince had taken Casey to see Dr. Laura Weis at Doylestown Veterinary Hospital due to health concerns surrounding a mass on her chest. When aspiration proved inconclusive, Dr. Weis recommended surgery to remove the tumor.
Unfortunately, the mass was found to be cancerous.
“Casey is such a super sweet dog,” Dr. Weis says. “She’s daddy’s little girl… And after surgery, there are always so many questions: ‘What did the tumor look like? Do you think you got it all? Is she going to be OK? How’s she going to do? Those are tough questions. You’re scared. You’ve just been told that your pet has cancer.”
A longtime patient at Doylestown, Vince knew his friend was in the best hands.
“It was scary,” Vince says. “But I trust Casey’s health explicitly with Dr. Weis. So, when she called me from the operating room … I said, ‘Do with Casey as you would your own dogs.’”
The reply? “‘Got it. I understand.’”
“Vince asked me, ‘What would you do if Casey was your dog?’” Dr. Weis recalls. “And I would want to do everything possible that improved the quality of life of my dog and gave her the best chance of beating the cancer.”
For Casey, Dr. Weis explains, the best option turned out to be an autologous cancer vaccine courtesy of Ardent Animal Health in Nicholasville, Kentucky.
Doylestown Veterinary Hospital is currently partnering with Ardent to offer stem cell and platelet-rich plasma therapy for pets. Those treatments are yielding astounding results for patients suffering from osteoarthritis, hip dysplasia, and other degenerative and inflammatory diseases.
The company had similarly developed an innovative vaccine made using tumor cells from a pet’s own body.
Within a couple of hours of surgery, portions of Casey’s tumor were being shipped to Kentucky, where a customized vaccine would be created for her.
Along with Casey, a new hope is on the horizon for countless other dogs.
According to Matt Yeich, marketing manager at Ardent, the company’s customized canine cancer vaccine, officially known as K9-ACV (canine autologous cancer vaccine) first began to take shape in 2016.
Ardent, itself, has been around for the better part of a decade, building a reputation with regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy treatments.
“We’ve really taken the approach of biologic treatments from the start,” Yeich says. “We started in the regenerative medicine space and expanded into cancer care for dogs. Ardent strives to work with our veterinary partners to come up with innovative solutions. We’re not simply set on just the products and services we offer right now. We’re always looking to expand and improve and focus on the body’s ability to heal itself.”
To that end, Ardent specializes in treatments that are holistic in nature, while targeting the root cause of health conditions and ailments its patients suffer from – things like arthritis and hip dysplasia.
And now, cancer.
The customized cancer vaccine was the brainchild of inventors Dr. John Yannelli and Dr. Don Cohen of the University of Kentucky Medical Center.
Previously, Dr. Yannelli had worked with the National Cancer institute as well as the University of Kentucky, doing research that focused on immunotherapy for lung cancer.
The story, Yeich says, is that Dr. Yannelli’s own experiences with his own dog’s cancer treatment opened his eyes to new possibilities.
In the veterinary world, tumors, says Yeich, may be sent out for pathology, but are ultimately thrown out post-surgery. Dr. Yannelli wondered: What other purposes might they serve?
Overcoming Immune Tolerance
Studies have shown that tumor cells, not unlike regular cells, express self-antigens that the body is taught to ignore early on. In short, as a cancerous tumor grows it is simultaneously creating an immunosuppressive “smoke screen,” making any immune response ineffective.
Science has discovered, however, that the immune system will recognize and fight cancer cells if they are presented in such a way that this “immune tolerance” is broken.
Autologous means “from your own body.” Dr. Yannelli and Dr. Cohen’s idea was that cancerous cells could be extracted from an autologous tumor and used to create a vaccine that would break through any immune tolerance and foster a strong anti-tumor immunity.
They were right.
“Essentially, our veterinary partners will perform surgery to remove the tumor, which is then sent to our lab here in Kentucky where we identify the tumor cells in that sample,” Yeich says. “What we’re trying to do is create that immune response. We’re working to help the body identify that the cancer is foreign.”
The process, he continues, is simple and straightforward – and requires no special equipment or training for veterinarians.
A collection cooler is dispatched to participating practices, containing everything needed to return a sample. Veterinarians can even send a tumor sample for pathology in addition to vaccine creation.
Samples are shipped by UPS, Next-Day Air. Once the team in Kentucky receives the sample, the creation of the customized canine vaccine takes anywhere from 3 to 7 days.
The 3-dose vaccine is then shipped overnight to the partner clinic to be administered every 30 days intradermally.
“We receive the actual vaccines back from Ardent Animal Health in a frozen state,” Dr. Weis says. Patients return at 30, 60, and 90-day intervals after surgery for vaccination.
“We shave four little areas on their back and give them just a tiny amount –a quarter of a milliliter of the solution – into each one of those spots.”
While safety and efficacy have not yet been established for the vaccine, hundreds have been administered on an outpatient basis, with minor side effects including fever and minimal inflammation potentially occurring over the initial 48 hours after injection.
“Because we’re activating the immune system, and this is a form of immunotherapy, sometimes you might get a little swelling or redness at the site of the injection, just like with a regular vaccination,” Dr. Weis continues. “Or the pet might feel a little bit sleepy or tired that day or might not want to eat.”
For her part, however, Casey suffered absolutely no side effects.
“She felt great,” Dr. Weis recalls. “She went on a walk that same day.”
“It was seamless,” Vince says. “The vaccine was administered right under Casey’s skin, and she didn’t have any adverse reactions. It was just like another normal day at the vet. But I knew every time that she got one, it was building antibodies to keep cancer away.”
K9-ACV is not limited to any one cancer type, Yeich says. Any resectable, or operable, mass can be used to create the customized canine cancer vaccine.
Frequently, when gauging efficacy, doctors look at the median number of days since treatment – or how many days, post-surgery, a dog lives.
Yeich shares the story of Ella, a recipient who had been diagnosed with high-grade sarcoma at the age of 8. The average survival time for this particular cancer, post-surgery, averages two months. One year after receiving the K9-ACV vaccine, Ella was going strong, with no signs of cancer, and maintaining a normal quality of life.
Yeich notes that some cases are substantially more progressed than others – and some become metastatic after the vaccine is created.
“With dogs, specifically, their life spans are so much shorter than ours,” Yeich says. “If we can add two or three more months to their life, we see that as a great outcome.”
And so do pet parents.
Almost a year after receiving the vaccine, Casey remains cancer-free, with no signs of any additional growth.
“I knew it was the right decision from the very first moment that Dr. Weis recommended it,” Vince says.
In honor of Pet Cancer Awareness Month, Doylestown Veterinary Hospital patients can receive 5% off of the customized canine cancer vaccine through the end of the year. For more information on K9-ACV, visit www.ardentanimalhealth.com.