Behind the Scenes Look Into a Feline Cancer Researcher’s Process

May 15th, 2018
By Kaylee Hamar

This scientist’s work could help make a life or death difference for your cat and inspire you to do something amazing in your own life!

“Cancer,” a word that you most likely hear more often than you would like to. Be it human friends, family, acquaintances or our beloved furry family members, this is a word that can shift life on a dime. Dr. Alycen Lundberg is a researcher of feline cancers, and she has shed some light on the difference you can make and the progress she is making with her research.

Alycen always wanted to be a veterinarian, specifically one for the Iditarod! Her father, a dog musher in Wisconsin, was her inspiration for this projected life path. “One thing I didn’t know, and many people don’t know, is that there are so many different specialties within veterinary medicine. Once I got to vet school and realized this, I quickly established the fact that I would be in surgery and use cool tools.” That was, until she got to her last rotation, oncology.  “Experiencing the ability to offer comfort and empathy to families who were going through difficult diagnoses for their pets was comforting, and my path was forever changed.”

Experiencing the ability to offer comfort and empathy to families who were going through difficult diagnoses for their pets was comforting, and my path was forever changed.

Going into feline oncology research sounds specific, but it also, in my mind, sounds overwhelming. There are so many different types of cancer, how do you start, I ask Alycen. “It is overwhelming and exciting! It is really about baby steps which keep me on track and also provide me with little bites of measurable success that keep me encouraged.”

How did Alycen get started with a first step into this research? “Sometimes things just come to together, and sometimes life is really waiting on the right time and place for that thing to happen. That is what happened to me one day. My mentor, Dr. Fan was already connected with a chemist, Professor Paul Hergenrother, and they had been working together on developing other anti-cancer compounds and finding ways to use animals as a model for human cancers.  An idea surrounding a new compound the Hergenrother Lab had created was passed to me and became the cornerstone of my Ph.D. project, and I went to work to see which cancers the compound may help with. There is a specific enzyme is showed to be elevated in many cancer cells, and this compound could target those cells.  Interestingly enough, feline mouth cancer cells have extremely high levels of this enzyme, which allowed us to successfully target them!”

So, as the research team became excited, they moved on to in-vitro studies, then on to rodent models, and finally, cats with this type of cancer. Their research has continued to show success!

“It is so interesting being on the other side of the research now. I now know that these breakthroughs are coming from people like me- normal people who are hunkered down in a small basement laboratory, walking back and forth to a graduate laboratory to meet up with other graduate collaborators and making tiny progressions that add up over time to a great success.”

It is important to me that, as humans, we remain curious about simple things like what is going into these things that make our life better. Knowing the why and the who behind a product or drug is important. To hear the story from Alycen, and relate to her doing small tasks daily that add up to be a potentially life changing difference for thousands of cat owners, allows me to humanize something I don’t understand. In this humanization of a scientific breakthrough, I hope you are also reminded that we all can make a difference in this world in our own work! Despite being one person, we can make large differences in the world, and Alycen is inspiring us to realize that!

Feline Cancer and what YOU can do as a cat owner:

The word “cancer” is an umbrella that covers and includes many different types, each having its own set of traits.  This is what makes cancer such a complicated subject to understand.  Alycen has made incredible headway in finding a potential solution for one specific type of cancer.

Most important thing for pet owners to know:

  • Form a relationship with a vet you can trust: Find a vet that you connect with. They are super knowledgeable and can help you make decisions to keep your pet healthy longer!
  • See the vet regularly: You pet needs check ups just like you do.
  • Get the blood work done: Animals cannot talk to us, so this blood work is one of the only ways to catch early issues that could end up saving the life of your cat.
  • Do the screening tests: Again, this is a part of how the cat’s body will communicate any issues.

Most of this feline research crosses over to the human oncology research, so who knows what may be next for this compound and Alycen’s work.

Do you have a cat with mouth cancer and want to participate in research? If you are willing to go to the location of the research, there may be a way for this compound to help you! They have also just got a clinical trial using this new compound up and running specifically for cats with lung cancer. Contact the University of Illinois Cancer Care Clinic, Clinical Trial Coordinator Rebecca Kamerer at [email protected] or 217-333-5300.  Pet owner and referring veterinarian phone calls and emails are welcome.

 

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