FDA-Approved Human Drug Helps Pony with Leukemia

Bob may be small, but his big heart and gentle demeanor have secured this beloved pony’s place as part of his Pennsylvania farm family for more than 16 years.

So when Bob began experiencing unexplained breathing problems in the summer of 2017, his owner became very concerned and sought the advice of The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center Galbreath Equine Center.

Testing revealed that Bob had chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a form of blood cancer that is rare among horses but common among humans. His disease would require immediate treatment but because the disease is so rare in horses, the veterinary team had limited treatment options. The first treatment attempt, unfortunately, was not effective so they needed to consider clinical research options.

Through a unique collaborative research effort at Ohio State, Bob’s veterinary team – led by Teresa Burns, DVM – connected with John C. Byrd, MD, a hematologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) who specializes in chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Byrd’s team led efforts to develop both first- and second-generation oral drugs to treat CLL. Together, the human and animal cancer specialists developed a plan to use one of these drugs – ibrutinib – to treat Bob’s disease. He began therapy in April 2018.

Known as the Comparative Oncology Signature Research Program, this research initiative pairs oncologists who treat childhood and adult forms of cancer with veterinarians who manage the same cancers in animal patients. The ultimate goal is to speed up the pace of translational research discoveries and new treatments for cancers that occur in both animals and humans. To date, the program has focused primarily on canine cancer patients. This is the first time this highly effective human leukemia drug is being administered to treat an equine patient.

The Comparative Oncology Signature Research Program addresses a significant challenge in the current clinical trials model: the lack of a close comparative testing model for translating drug discoveries to application in human cancer.

Bob’s owner says she is thankful for such a dedicated team looking at cancer in animals and humans: “Anything that accelerates treatment of cancer is extremely important for both pets and people. We will often go to extraordinary lengths to help them have a prolonged life but also a better quality of life.”

To learn more about the comparative oncology program at Ohio State, visit vet.osu.edu/signature-programs/comparative-and-translational-oncology. To learn more about cancer research at the OSUCCC – James, visit cancer.osu.edu/research.