WSU veterinary hospital installs new cancer-fighting technology

Eva Downs holds the leash of a dog, Marley, who is posing by the new linear accelerator at WSU's Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
Veterinary specialist Eva Downs poses for a photo with Marley, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier dog with a cancerous tumor on his hip, on Sept. 29, at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Marley was the first patient treated by the hospital’s new linear accelerator (photo by College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren).

Washington State University has completed the installation of its new linear accelerator capable of providing advanced radiation therapy and life-saving treatments to animal cancer patients at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“This new machine is going to give us the ability to provide cancer care to countless pets in the coming years,” said Dr. Janean Fidel, a veterinary oncologist at WSU. “We can actually cure patients, not just prolong their lives, but actually cure them. This is an investment in every pet that might need radiation therapy.”

The linear accelerator, or LINAC, is designed to safely and accurately direct beams of intense energy to kill cancer cells while limiting damage to surrounding healthy tissue. The oncology team uses it in the treatment of many cancers, including mast cell tumors, soft tissue sarcomas, and a variety of oral, nasal and brain tumors. The teaching hospital is just one of a handful of veterinary hospitals in the Northwest with the life-saving technology.

The new LINAC replaces the hospital’s old linear accelerator, purchased as a used model in 2010. The machine provided care to more than 3,500 animals at WSU, but it has been plagued by frequent and costly breakdowns in recent years. It was shut down in late June to begin installation of the new equipment.

Kasey Jo Burton stands in a dark room with lasers shining on the new linear accelerator at WSU's Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
Kasey Jo Burton, an oncology veterinary specialist, uses lasers to put a special positioning bed in place for a rabbit patient about to receive radiation treatment for cancer on Friday, Sept. 29, using the hospital’s brand new linear accelerator (photo by College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren).

Since fundraising started in 2018, slightly more than $1 million has been raised for the purchase of the new LINAC. Fundraising efforts are not complete, as roughly another $1 million is needed to fully cover expenses for the new machine.

During installation, patients needing radiation therapy were referred to facilities in Portland, Oregon, and Bozeman, Montana.

Throughout the past decade, linear accelerators used in radiation oncology have made massive gains in accuracy, efficiency, and safety. The new LINAC is capable of submillimeter targeting accuracy and high dose rate delivery that is clinically proven to improve treatment outcomes by reducing radiation dosage to healthy tissue and shortening the treatment time. 

A view of the new linear accelerator installed at WSU's Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
The new linear accelerator (photo by College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren).

The new LINAC also has an onboard imaging system that allows the operator to “see” where a tumor is physically located just before treatment and then auto-align the patient to ensure the target is perfectly in line with the radiation beam. On older LINAC models, the user had to rely on film for imaging, which is costly and time-consuming and provides poor image quality.

“We had pretty good capabilities before, but now we have more capabilities. It’ll be faster, more accurate, and potentially less toxic,” Fidel said.

Since installation began in early summer, the oncology team at WSU has been busy training to use the new machine.

“With all the additional capabilities, it’s just a very, very different system than what we have been using for more than a decade, so we have had to learn how to use everything,” Fidel said. 

The Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Raelynn Farnsworth, expressed her gratitude to donors for helping WSU secure the new LINAC.

“We are so thankful for the support and generosity of everyone who helped to make this become a reality,” she said. “The new LINAC is going to allow us to provide loved pets cancer treatment that is not widely available. These pets will have the chance to spend more time with their families.”

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