Grand openings are usually, well, grand.
In line with these socially distanced times, however, the recent grand opening of Virginia Tech’s state-of-the-art Animal Cancer Care and Research Center in Roanoke was a decidedly modest affair.
Instead of a local dignitary cutting a ribbon or a popular politician delivering a rousing speech, the new clinical and research facility was inaugurated by an 11-pound domestic shorthaired cat named Kokomo, the first pet to set paw in the new center as a clinical patient.
Although Kokomo is surely more interested in batting around her favorite yellow banana toy than in cutting-edge medicine, her presence at the center, which is housed in the 139,000-square-foot addition to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion (VTC), represented the culmination of more than six years of planning.
“This center will develop and deploy novel modalities for treating a variety of cancers,” said M. Daniel Givens, dean of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. “We are grateful for the outstanding faculty, staff and partners of this center that fuel its far-reaching impact. This exciting new initiative creates the opportunity for advanced, integrated cancer treatment for dogs and cats in our region and transformative, translational research that will advance cancer treatment in pets and people alike.”
Accommodating the relocation and expansion of the oncology service from the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Blacksburg, the new facility is a vital part of the VTC Health Sciences and Technology Campus, adjacent to the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, and integrates human and veterinary biomedical researchers. The center’s faculty clinicians offer comprehensive, integrated services, including medical, surgical and radiation oncology, and frontline cancer diagnostics and treatment for dogs and cats.
Kokomo was referred to the center to explore treatment options for a bladder tumor called transitional cell carcinoma. “When Kokomo was diagnosed in October of last year [at a clinic in Arizona], they told us she would likely only live until spring,” said owner Peter Haberkorn, who, along with his husband Aaron Betsky, adopted Kokomo 11 years ago. “She’s already exceeded expectations, so we felt like we had to give her a fighting chance.”
Patients like Kokomo and their owners aren’t the only beneficiaries of the oncology clinicians’ expertise and advanced care. The center’s unique co-location alongside human-focused clinicians and researchers embodies a true One Health approach that recognizes the dynamic interdependence of animal, human, and environmental health. Because companion animals often develop the same or similar cancers as humans, therapies developed by researchers can help human patients and serve as new treatments for pets.
“The Animal Cancer Care and Research Center here on the Health Sciences and Technology Campus in Roanoke is an important addition to Virginia Tech’s Cancer Research Alliance,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.
The alliance connects more than 30 researchers in Blacksburg and Roanoke into a cancer research community. Coupled with Virginia Tech’s new partnership with the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center adds a new dimension: Certain cancers that occur spontaneously in pets are similar to those that occur in the human pediatric population.
“Children’s National’s new research campus in Washington, D.C., will house cancer researchers from Virginia Tech to specifically address pediatric brain cancer that shares several molecular signatures with the same type of cancer in dogs,” Friedlander said. “This is a powerful opportunity to bring together the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s cancer research teams, the College of Veterinary Medicine’s cancer researchers and caregivers, and multiple other cancer researchers from across the university and Children’s National programs into a unique collaborative program to advance cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care for all, including families and their animal companions.”
Along with the cancer research community, the needs of Virginia Tech students are tightly integrated into the new center’s mission. Clinical services work in tandem with translational research and health sciences degree programs involving the veterinary college and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, immersing students in a best-in-class, multidisciplinary learning environment.
For medical oncologists Nick Dervisis and Shawna Klahn, associate professors in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, who helped build the veterinary college’s oncology service in a single room at the teaching hospital in Blacksburg, the center’s opening is a dream come true. “With this team and this facility, we are ready to make a big impact,” said Dervisis.