Tenacious terrier Charlie Spillman beats brain cancer

Radio Spot: New generation technology used to treat Charlie's brain tumor featured during Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee game halftime

Charlie, his ownder, and Dr. Rossmeisl in the exam room
Charlie and owner Richard Deese pay close attention as John Rossmeisl explains a procedure.

Don’t let that teddy bear face fool you—Charlie Spillman is a fighter. The tenacious terrier survived two brain surgeries, countless procedures, and two different clinical trials while battling a brain tumor. His most recent clinical trial took place at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

“An MRI scan in July 2015 showed that Charlie had a golf ball-sized tumor on the left hemisphere of his brain,” explained owner Tony Spillman of Nashville, Tennessee. Charlie had a meningioma, the most common type of brain tumor in dogs. These tumors can grow quickly, putting pressure on the brain and threatening the patient’s life. In a tiny dog like Charlie, the brain is smaller than a tennis ball, so when a meningioma of that size showed up, quick action was needed to save his life.

Jen Gaskins monitors Charlie's MRI scan
Radiology technician Jen Gaskins monitors Charlie as he undergoes a follow-up MRI scan.

An initial surgery at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital wasn’t able to remove the entire tumor, so Charlie’s owners, Richard Deese and Tony Spillman, pursued enrollment in a clinical trial at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Charlie is the first dog to be treated with high-frequency irreversible electroporation for brain cancer
Charlie, the first dog to be treated with high-frequency irreversible electroporation for brain cancer, the day after his procedure. Four months after his treatment, Charlie’s recheck MRI showed no evidence of the tumor.

Charlie initially enrolled in a study using a modified form of the Newcastle Disease Virus to target cancer cells, but when that experimental therapy only shrunk the tumor by 3 to 5 percent, John Rossmeisl, professor of neurology and neurosurgery in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, suggested a new approach. So in March 2016, Charlie became the first brain cancer patient to undergo high-frequency irreversible electroporation, or H-FIRE. This technology, invented by Virginia Tech biomedical engineering professor Rafael Davalos, is a minimally-invasive surgical technique that destroys cancer cells using a series of short, intense electric pulses delivered via small electrodes placed around the tumor. The technology had been tested on other species and other types of cancer, but Charlie was the first to undergo H-FIRE in the brain.

Rossmeisl explained the importance of H-FIRE’s ability to precisely target cancer cells. “The theory is you kill the tumor cells and spare the healthy cells. And in the brain, that’s a very important process.”

Charlie recovered well from the pioneering procedure and is back to his normal routine, “co-piloting” the car, going to work with owner Spillman, and getting plenty of love and attention. Two follow-up scans have shown no return of the cancer. Spillman and Deese were overjoyed to discover that the procedure had successfully eliminated the tumor.

Charlie with owners Tony Spillman and Richard Deese, neurologist John Rossmeisl
Charlie with (from left) owners Tony Spillman and Richard Deese, neurologist John Rossmeisl