Health & Environment

A Hero’s Hero

When a Houston K-9 officer was given an uncommon cancer diagnosis, a Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine &Biomedical Sciences surgical oncologist stepped in to save his life and get him back on his feet.
By Ann Kellett, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications December 9, 2019

T-Rex and his doctors pose for a photos
Surgical oncologist Brandan Wustefeld-Janssens treated Houston K-9 officer T-Rex.

Texas A&M College of Veterinary & Biomedical Sciences

Houston Police Department Officer Paul Foster has worked with his four-legged K-9 partner, a Belgian Malinois named T-Rex, for four years.

“We go out every night and hunt down the bad guys who run,” Foster has said, adding that since T-Rex has come aboard, the duo has captured more than 100 bad guys.

But when Foster noticed T-Rex limping a few months ago, a veterinarian gave him some bad news — bone cancer — an especially common diagnosis in larger breeds like T-Rex.

While treatments are available, they have many side effects, and the prognosis is generally grim, as the cancer often spreads quickly throughout the body.

That’s when Foster brought T-Rex to the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Small Animal Hospital (SAH) and Dr. Brandan Wustefeld- Janssens.

Bringing comfort and hope to patients and families

“I have always been interested in oncology and the unique challenges it presents us as veterinarians,” said Wustefeld- Janssens, an assistant professor of surgical oncology. “The opportunity to provide comfort and hope to our patients and their families is very rewarding.”

He earned a veterinary degree at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and then completed an internship and surgical residency at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom.

In 2017, Wustefeld-Janssens came to Texas A&M after finishing an elite fellowship in surgical oncology at Colorado State University, making him one of just two fellowship-trained surgical oncologists in Texas. He also is a Diplomate of the European College of Veterinary Surgeons and a recognized specialist in surgical oncology with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

“I knew of Texas A&M from my student days, and Texas appealed to my wife and me, since it is so similar to South Africa, where we grew up,” Wustefeld-Janssens said. “As luck would have it, the university was looking to expand the oncology team to include a surgical oncologist. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Also appealing is that the CVM has a state-of-the art radiation therapy unit with outstanding radiation oncologists.

“This allows us to deliver radiation very accurately in a way that cannot be matched with other machines,” he said. “We are currently exploring ways to use this advanced technology to extend survivals in cancers that spread to the lungs. We also are looking at ways to produce custom made, 3D-printed implants to reconstruct bone defects after cancer surgery.”

An uncommon — and good — prognosis

Wustefeld-Janssens said T-Rex was typical in the presentation of his cancer, but received an uncommon diagnosis.

“Bone cancer is typical in large or giant breed dogs and is located in a long bone near the knee,” he said. “Most often — about 85 percent of the time — these types of tumors are osteosarcoma.”

But it turns out that T-Rex had something else: a low- grade chondrosarcoma — a tumor of the cartilage — which has a very good prognosis.

“This was great news, since the more common osteosarcoma has a poor overall survival rate of just 15 to 20 percent at two years,” Wustefeld-Janssens said.

Given the grade and type of tumor he presented, T-Rex didn’t need chemotherapy; instead, Wustefeld-Janssens and his team amputated the affected leg and saved his life.

T-Rex hardly seemed to notice.

“He dragged the student working on his case out the front door of the hospital the very next day,” Wustefeld-Janssens said. “I am always blown away how amazing dogs are. They can recover so quickly from a fairly large surgery that would take a person months to recover from.”

Researching treatments at the molecular level

“Cancer develops spontaneously in dogs, just like in people, and our pets are often exposed to similar environmental risk factors as those associated with cancer in people,” Wustefeld-Janssens said. “Some cancers in dogs are indistinguishable from the same disease in people when the cells are looked at under the microscope.

While cancer in a pet is scary, there is always something that can be done.

“Many people are surprised to find out not only that dogs get cancer, but that many of the techniques and methods we use are identical to those used with people,” Wustefeld- Janssens said.

That’s why his group focuses on translational research and the unique opportunities that canine patients provide to study a disease so similar to that found in humans.

“Producing quality research and providing world-class, cutting-edge service to canine patients required a similar financial investment to that needed for centers for human patients,” he said.

But the results of this investment are promising.

“We are developing new treatment targets for difficult cancers like osteosarcoma and lymphoma,” Wustefeld- Janssens said. “And the research pioneered in dogs is being taken over to clinical trials in kids with the same cancers.

“The technology and techniques used to study the molecular mechanisms of cancer are significantly more available and more cost effective than they used to be,” he said. “We hope to have a better understanding of the molecular drivers of canine cancer soon so we can come up with new and innovative ways to treat cancer at the molecular level.”

Back in action

Meanwhile, T-Rex is back on the job in Houston, this time sniffing out explosives and as a demonstration dog rather than chasing bad guys.

“Giving him a purpose and giving him something to do, I think, will help with his rehabilitation,” Foster said when T-Rex left the hospital.

Wustefeld-Janssens agrees.

“The CVM is one of very few hospitals in the United States that has a fully integrated clinical team,” he said. “This means the traditional subspecialties in oncology — medical, radiation and surgical — work together on every case and make comprehensive treatment plans that offer the best chance for a good outcome, allow us to be innovative in treatment, and integrate cutting-edge clinical trials.”

Patients like T-Rex would, no doubt, agree.

This article by Ann Kellett originally appeared in CVM Today.

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