Correction: This story has been modified from its original version. — This story has been modified from its original version to reflect more accurate language in some quotations, as well as some typographical errors. The Collegiate Times regrets these errors.
Frank Saltarelli had just returned home from walking his dog, Leyna, when she had her first seizure.
Leyna, an 8-year-old miniature schnauzer, had four more seizures that day, Oct. 2, 2011 — one of which occurred in the waiting room of Alexandria Animal Hospital. The doctors were unsure about the cause of Leyna’s seizures, so they began running tests and gave her seizure medication to take in the meantime.
On Nov. 23, an MRI examination determined that Leyna had a brain tumor.
Now, just four months later, Leyna is back at home, thanks to a new treatment discovered by doctors at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, also known as SBES.
Saltarelli took Leyna to Bush Veterinary Services, a clinic that specializes in neurology. A neurologist recommended that Saltarelli talk to Ken Johnson, founder of the Boo Radley Foundation. This foundation helps dog owners find and participate in canine brain tumor clinic trials after diagnosis.
It was Johnson who informed Saltarelli of the pre-clinical trial being done by the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, also known as VMRCVM, in Blacksburg. The trial is for a treatment called non-thermal irreversible electroporation, or N-TIRE, developed by Rafael Davalos, an associate professor in the SBES.
The N-TIRE treatment involves placing two very small needle electrodes directly into the tumor and applying a series of electric pulses to the cells. These pulses create defects within the cells’ membranes, causing them to die in a controlled manner. The pre-clinical trial for this procedure is currently treating canine patients with gliomas, a type of brain tumor.
Saltarelli and Leyna were referred to John Rossmeisl, a neurosurgeon from the VMRCVM, who treats the canine patients within the pre-clinical trial. After histopathological evaluation, Rossmeisl determined that Leyna’s tumor was a grade-three astrocytoma, a common type of glioma.
The World Health Organization grades glioma tumors on a one to four scale; a grade three tumor, like the one Leyna had, is considered very biologically aggressive and malignant.
“I feel very fortunate that the timing worked out very well, because maybe a year earlier, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything,” Saltarelli said. “Even a lot of vets are still learning about what these trials are doing now and part of what (the Boo Radley Foundation) has been trying to do is educate about these options.”
Saltarelli brought Leyna from their home in Washington, D.C. to Blacksburg and she received the N-TIRE treatment on Dec. 14. She recovered well and returned home four days later, the Sunday before Christmas. Saltarelli was able to bring her with him to visit family in New York for the holidays.
“Even family members, while we were up there at Christmas time, commented that she seemed to be looking like she was doing well,” Saltarelli said.
A follow-up MRI conducted in January showed that Leyna’s tumor was 99 to 100 percent in remission, meaning her tumor has shrunk drastically and could possibly be gone.
So far, it has been more than five months since Leyna’s first seizure — much longer than anyone could have expected.
“We have enough data from looking at these dogs, that when they don’t get treatment, the vast majority of them are dead within three months of a diagnosis if you don’t treat them with surgery, radiation or an experimental therapy,” Rossmeisl said.
On Tuesday, an MRI showed that her tumor is still in remission. It has been three months since she
received the N-TIRE treatment, and there has been no visible change since her last MRI in January.
“She seems to be feeling great,” he said. “She’s pretty much back to her old self. Sometimes these medications can still make them a little dazed, but as we’ve continued to reduce the medication, she’s probably become even more alert.”
Leyna is one of five canine patients with brain cancer that has been treated so far through this particular pre-clinical trial, but dogs with tumors in different areas, such as the hip or thigh, have also been treated with N-TIRE.
According to Rossmeisl, 80 percent of the dogs that have been treated within the trial have had at least some shrinkage of their tumors.