The future of cancer care and research

Currently under construction on Virginia Tech Carilion’s Health Sciences and Technology Campus in Roanoke, VA, the college's Comparative Oncology Research Center (CORC) offers hope for a brighter future in cancer care for pets as well as for people.

The Comparative Oncology Research Center will be housed in the 139,000-gross-square-foot Virginia Tech Carilion (VTC) Biomedical Research Addition in Roanoke. Renderings by AECOM.

The college’s Comparative Oncology Research Center (CORC), scheduled to begin seeing patients in spring 2020, will be housed in the Virginia Tech Carilion (VTC) Biomedical Research Addition, a new building currently under construction on the VTC Health Sciences and Technology Campus in Roanoke.

The center will accommodate the relocation and expansion of the medical oncology service from the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Blacksburg and will serve as a center of excellence for comprehensive animal cancer care, research, and learning.

The facility will treat all types of veterinary cancer, as well as offering dog and cat owners the opportunity for their pets to participate in research and enroll in clinical trials. A $3.28 million investment in a linear accelerator will enable the clinic to house the region’s only radiation oncology service for pets.

“Our patients will be able to visit one location for different services such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, and even advanced diagnostic imaging,” said Nick Dervisis, associate professor of oncology in the veterinary college’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. “Once the new facility opens, all those services will be under one roof.”

The clinic’s unique co-location alongside human clinicians and researchers allows CORC to embrace a true One Health concept that recognizes the linkages between human, animal, and environmental health. Because companion animals often develop the same or similar cancers as humans, therapies can be developed to help human patients as well as offering new treatments for companion animals.

From left, Roanoke mayor Sherman Lea, Virginia Tech president Tim Sands, VTCRI executive director Michael Friedlander, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Carilion Clinic CEO Nancy Howell Agee, and Carilion Clinic CMO Patrice Weiss break ground for the new VTC Biomedical Research Addition in Roanoke in October 2017.

One example of this is the college’s signature research program in neuro-oncology, which focuses on tumors that are common to both dogs and people. The new facility’s imaging capabilities will provide valuable insights to a team of veterinarians, biomedical engineers, and human medical researchers in the fight against these often-deadly brain cancers.

Education is also integral to CORC’s mission. Clinical services will be integrated with translational research and health sciences degree programs involving the college and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) and Research Institute (VTCRI), immersing students in a best-in-class, multidisciplinary learning environment.

VTCSOM Senior Dean for Academic Affairs Richard Vari emphasized the clinic’s role in integrating ideas about the common biology between humans and animals. “We’ve already established a strong collaboration with faculty from the veterinary college who participate in teaching and research mentoring at VTCSOM and through the veterinary college’s Master of Public Health program. This new initiative will further advance student learning in support of Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic’s shared commitment to One Health.”

Creating an experience similar to top-flight human comprehensive cancer centers will involve integrating pet comfort and well-being into the fabric of the facility. C. Todd Johnson, whose 10-year-old black Labrador retriever, Albert, was recently diagnosed with oral cancer at the current facility in Blacksburg, was surprised to learn about the array of treatment options available to dogs. “I’ve never been through cancer with an animal before, but we’ve had a lot of cancer in my family. Fortunately, we’re in a situation where we can travel and get the treatment Albert needs. He’s like one of my children, and I’m going to do whatever I can to prolong his quality of life,” Johnson said. “The idea that this will soon be available in our area is wonderful.”

Dervisis echoed those sentiments. “The vision of CORC is to be a regional and national driver of research excellence and cancer care. But as veterinarians, at the end of the day, our goal is to give our patients the chance to live their lives to the fullest.”

Written by Mindy Quigley