Saving Pets, Saving People: Tackling Tumors

FRESNO, Calif.

Two dogs, one cat, a couple of veterinarians and a neurosurgeon are all part of a team that may find new medicines for a very painful and deadly disease in people and pets.

"She had the most amazing uncontrolled thirst," Lynn Rainker, Maggie's owner, told Ivanhoe. "She started not eating," Gina, Lucy's owner, said.

These animals suffer from Cushing's disease. Erin Kelly was diagnosed with the human version two years ago.

"I gained 120 pounds, went from being an extremely athletic person to not being able to do much at all without getting really sick," Kelley, who battled Cushing's disease, said.

A tumor in her pituitary gland was throwing off her body's hormonal balance as well. The disease is common in household pets, but it's rare in humans, so it's hard to test new medicines.

"It's hard to even get enough fresh tissue, and then even when you a potential therapy to test that, given the rarity of the disease, it can take years and years," Adam Mamelak, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, explained.

That's why doctors turned to these animals for help. Both people and pets with Cushing's develop tumors, diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain, and weakened bones. There are even similarities at the cellular and molecular levels. Without treatment, it's fatal, but surgery to remove the pituitary tumor in animals is almost impossible.

"The anatomy of the pituitary is different. The approach is different," David Bruyette, DVM, Medical Director at VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital, said.

"The procedure was so difficult, because you couldn't see the area to be operated on," Dr. Mamelak said.

Dr. Mamelak was part of a team at Cedars-Sinai that modified an HD surgical imaging device they created for their patients to help veterinary surgeons see the tumor in animals.

"When the surgeon does the surgery, they're not looking inside the mouth. They're looking at a high-definition monitor," Dr. Bruyette said.

Not only can surgeons remove the tumor but then researchers take the dog's tumor, create a model, compare it to the humans, and then test therapies that can benefit both.

"We have made some early discoveries that are already beginning to translate into potential clinical therapies for dogs, and hopefully down the line into people," Dr. Mamelak said.

Already in the lab, drugs have been developed that shrink the tumors, and now, the medicine is being tested in the first dog.

"The relationship that pet owners have with their pets, I have come to realize, is every bit as strong as a person may have with a child or another family member," Dr. Mamelak said.

Nine dogs and one cat are alive and happy today. It's a double reward … saving pets and saving people.

The Cedars surgeons are training veterinarians in Los Angeles on how to perform the procedure, and then they hope to train other vets across the country.

The surgery for pets costs $10,000 but is a cure if successful. Medication for a pet for a lifetime costs several thousand dollars, but only helps the symptoms; it will not stop the disease from progressing.

If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Marsha Hitchcock at

Sandy Van
Director of Media Relations, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Departments of Neurosurgery and Neurology

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