U doctors fight to save dog

This summer, millions of people have made big-screen Batman a hero. For a Minneapolis family, a smaller, furrier Batman...
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August 13, 2008

This summer, millions of people have made big-screen Batman a hero.

For a Minneapolis family, a smaller, furrier Batman always was one.

In this case, Batman is a 10-year-old shepherd-mix dog who had a brain tumor. Last week, he became the first dog to receive an experimental treatment by University veterinarians and researchers that combines vaccine and gene therapy to try to isolate and kill the tumor.

Batman is owned by Anna Brailovsky and her husband Eric Baker.

Brailovsky said Batman's condition was "like a rollercoaster" following the surgery.

Sometimes he was unable to move properly or operate his legs, she said, before a vast improvement after Batman received steroids Monday night.

"All I could think about was getting the tumor out of his head," Brailovsky said. "It just really didn't seem like his time to go."

Across the Atlantic

Brailovsky and Baker found Batman on the streets of Berlin as graduate students in 1999.

The couple spent some time struggling with the idea of keeping the dog - until Baker accidentally lost him while out shopping.

"I spent three days imagining he was being tortured to death," Brailovsky said.

Upon recovering Batman from a neighbor, Brailovsky said, "I knew I was going to keep him."

Batman returned with the couple to the United States in 2001. He was a healthy, puppy-like dog for many years - until he had a series of seizures about three weeks ago.

Seizures in older dogs are a common symptom of a brain tumor.

"I thought he was dying," Brailovsky said. "I've never seen anything like it."

Veterinarians told them Batman had a brain tumor in late July.

The couple struggled with decisions about treatment options, considering everything from treatment side effects to cost.

Brailovsky said they were considering simply removing the tumor and letting Batman live out his life when the University called with a new plan.

"It was in the midst of my deliberating that Dr. Pluhar called and said that there was an alternative," she said.

Treatment

Dr. Elizabeth Pluhar , a veterinary surgery professor, and John Ohlfest , a pediatrics professor, had been considering an experimental brain tumor treatment for about three years before approaching Batman's family.

"There is a possibility here that it might work," Pluhar said. "It's better than doing nothing at all. They didn't want to do nothing. They were pretty frantic."

Last week, Batman underwent the procedure, the first animal besides a mouse to be treated by it.

"This dog probably got a better therapy than a human could possibly get," Ohlfest said.

Surgeons removed most of Batman's tumor, much of which will be used to make a vaccine for the dog.

Gene therapy was then used to try and make the remaining tumor cells recognizable to the body.

Most cells have markers that identify them as body cells or harmful ones, leading the body to protect the good cells and destroy the bad ones. Tumor cells, Ohlfest said, have no identifiers.

"The body doesn't recognize that they should not be there," Pluhar said.

The treatment has been confined to mice, which Ohlfest said are not good subjects to study the effects of the treatment.

"You're telling me that you're going to model something accurately in a brain not even the size of a grape?" Ohlfest asked. "It's kind of embarrassing."

Humans and dogs get very similar types of tumors; Batman's, for example, was similar to that which affected U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Trying the treatment in canine patients can be harder, Pluhar said.

"There are a lot more things that can be shown to be abnormal in a person," she said. "Batman may have a whopping headache, but he can't say, 'Oh, man my head is killing me today.' "

Ohlfest said they hope to try the treatment in about 20 dogs before trying to get approval to test it in people, possibly applying for a treatment permit within three years.

Clinical care for canine patients can be up to $15,000, Ohlfest said. The University, however, will foot the bill for its patients.

Within the next few months, Batman will receive the vaccine and then follow-up MRIs to monitor future development of brain tumors.

Doctors said it will be encouraging news if he lives even six more months.

For Brailovsky, Batman has already left his legacy.

"He's always been the world's most remarkable dog," she said.

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