Wagner’s T-Cell therapy helps to advance research into non-toxic cancer treatments for humans
Cancer. The ‘C’ word that strikes fear in every heart. Every day, it breaks more hearts than it should have a right to.
But every so often, extraordinary stories emerge about extraordinary individuals who give it their best fight thanks to their own courage and the determination of oncologists and researchers who fight alongside them.
This is one of those stories, but the individual concerned, is of the four-legged variety, and his courage is no less extraordinary than his human counterparts who are waging life and death battles with this sinister disease.
His name is Wagner, but everyone who loved him knew him as ‘Waggie’. He is one of the thousands of service dogs trained by The Seeing Eye® that have brought a new level of independent mobility to blind or visually-impaired persons. In Waggie’s case that person is the Co-Founder of Abled.com, Laura Meddens. The photos below show Laura meeting and training with Wagner at the Seeing Eye’s headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey.
They’ve been a team since 2006 and have been ‘opening eyes and opening doors’ on the Caribbean island of Curaçao through The Laura And Wagner Foundation as they raised awareness about service dogs and lobbied for better access rights for persons with guide dogs, after being turned away from banks, restaurants and other places normally-sighted people could freely go.
Waggie was also the mascot for the Foundation’s Abled® initiative to take the ‘dis’ out of disabled. But just as Laura was losing what was left of her vision, Waggie was diagnosed with B-Cell Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Following chemotherapy and enzyme treatments in Amsterdam, and a change from dry kibble food to a natural food diet consisting of meat and vegetables, Wagner went into remission twice, until the tumors in his lymph nodes started growing again. His chemotherapy options were at an end in the Netherlands and it was recommended that he be put to sleep.
A race against time and the promise of T-cell non-toxic cancer treatments
It was then Laura became aware of a remarkable clinical trial being conducted by a team of oncologists and veterinarians in the United States and an invitation was extended for Wagner to be a part of it. There was nothing to lose and Waggie was definitely worth the fight.
First, his blood samples needed to be taken. Laura had great help and support from her neighborhood veterinarian in Amsterdam – Drs. Carreen Loriaux and her assistant Natasja Slooten at the Dierenkliniek Ijburglaan.
Then with the help of Dr. Marc Elisen and his colleagues at the OLVG Hospital in Amsterdam, as well as the help of the many people listed below, Waggie’s blood samples were shipped over to Houston from Amsterdam the same day. You can read more about that global effort at our facebook page.
After the flight left Amsterdam at 10 AM local time, Liliana Pereyra and her colleagues at TNT along with Claudia Cousins and her colleagues at W.R. Zanes and Co. of La. Inc, helped to pre-clear the shipment in the air and ensure a speedy Customs clearance and delivery to the MD Anderson Cancer Center Cooper Lab the same afternoon, where Dr. Colleen O’Connor was waiting to cryopreserve Waggie’s blood samples.
Then she would isolate a certain type of fighter T-cells from his blood and expand them to number over three billion, ready to be re-infused back into his bloodstream to kill the cancer cells.
Cancer research goes to the dogs in Texas
The trial is being run by the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston, and Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Small Animal Clinic in College Station, Texas.
“We developed this idea after observing clinical data that showed the faster the human T-cells recovered after chemotherapy, the better the patient’s prognosis,” says Colleen O’Connor, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow at MD Anderson’s Children’s Cancer Hospital (CCH) and an investigator on the trial. “Thus, we tried infusing large numbers of healthy T-cells back into the dog to help the immune system recover after chemotherapy.”
The trial, undertaken in collaboration with Heather Wilson-Robles, D.V.M., assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, is proving successful and yielding new insights into the disease. Two of the dogs treated with T-cell therapy have been in complete remission for two years post T-cell therapy, and most of the others have lived well past the 10-month period.
This T-cell therapy isn’t restricted to lymphoma, however. Because the composition of canine blood is very similar to human blood, especially in children, it is hoped the research gained will lead to new treatment protocols for humans. An experimental T-cell therapy in Philadelphia has already saved a 7 year-old girl from an aggressive form of leukemia. On November 10, 2013, Emily Whitehead marked 18 months cancer-free and counting.
“The power of this study is that it can be used for all types of cancer,” says Laurence Cooper, M.D., Ph.D., professor and section chief of pediatric T-cell therapy at CCH and the study’s senior author. “In the near future, we’re interested in targeting other malignancies, such as brain tumors and bone cancers using this approach as a platform.”
In March, 2013, after Dr. O’Connor had expanded over three billion of Waggie’s T-Cells, it was time for Laura and Wagner to travel from Amsterdam to Texas.
Because his tumors had started growing again, Wagner underwent two rounds of chemotherapy in Texas to optimize his system for three rounds of T-Cell infusions. The chemotherapy achieved tremendous tumor reduction, and Waggie was, effectively, in remission, but the second round of chemotherapy left him severely weakened, and unbeknownst to everyone at the time, put him at great risk of another threat.
Laura and Wagner have a photo taken at the MD Anderson Cooper Lab in Houston, Texas with (L-R) Dr. Colleen O’Connor, Shelley Robson – MD Anderson’s Associate Director of Development, (whose late dog Dutch was also part of the T-Cell clinical trial), and Sara J. Farris, Senior Communications Specialist with MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital.
After a month of treatment, Laura returned with her beloved guide dog to Amsterdam but a few weeks later Waggie started getting weaker and, on a hunch, Laura decided to have him tested for Erlichia (the bacteria that cause tick disease) because of the large number of ticks encountered on the hotel parking lot and nearby field in College Station.
It was a hunch that would prove correct. Despite wearing a flea and tick collar and having taken preventative medication, as well as doing all-over checks on Waggie’s coat after every outing, the tests came back positive for tick disease.
That, on top of the lymphoma, proved to be too much for Waggie’s immune system to handle, and after her loyal companion stopped eating or drinking and developed breathing complications, Laura had to make the heartbreaking decision to end his suffering. On May 21, 2013, Dr. Carreen Loriaux helped put Waggie to rest in his own bed at home.
It was devastating news to pass along, especially to the teams at MD Anderson and Texas A&M.
Dr. Colleen O’Connor of the MD Anderson Cancer Center wrote:
“I have not been able to find the words to say how sorry I am about Waggie’s passing. It was a shock, especially since we spoke the week before and I thought he was going to come around.
I was hoping he would beat the erlichia and then we could re-concentrate on curing the lymphoma. Having lost my own dog to cancer in 2009, I can understand how devastated you feel right now. Not only was he an important part of your independence, but he was a much loved family member as well. It was clearly evident how much love and respect he had for you.
Waggle was a lucky “little” dog to have an owner who would literally go to the ends of the earth for him.
Thank you so much for letting Waggie be a part of this study. His legacy is very unique. His participation will help many dogs and children diagnosed with cancer now and in the future. From Waggie, we have learned more about how T- cells move towards the tumors, biomarkers which can predict the treatment’s efficacy, and the development of T cell infusion protocols.
We are optimizing new techniques right now so we can look at his red-stained T-cells before and after the infusions to see if there are any genetic or physical changes, which can help us improve the efficacy of future T-cell treatments. It is truly amazing and I hope it can bring you a small bit of comfort. I really appreciate that you trusted T-cell therapy, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas A&M and me enough to enroll Waggie in this cutting edge trial.
Once again, I am so sorry for your loss. Waggie was a gentle and kind soul. I enjoyed very much getting to know him and you.“
Asst. Professor Heather Wilson-Robles of the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences wrote:
“I am so sorry to hear about Waggie. He was such a brave and incredible dog. Our whole team was deeply saddened to hear that he had been put to sleep. You did everything you possibly could for him and he was lucky to have such a dedicated and loving family. I wish we could have done more for him. We will continue to work hard to find better treatments for this devastating disease. Please know that you and your family are in our thoughts during this very difficult time.”
“I am so sorry to hear this. I know how heartbroken you must be. He was such a gift to everyone he touched. It was such an honor to spend the very short time we had with him.
Please know that you are in our thoughts and prayers. Words just are not enough right now.
I hope that you will find comfort, as we did when we lost Dutch, that Waggie’s legacy lives on in all those who had the pleasure of being around him and in the science that he has helped to advance. He was a very special boy.“
He was indeed.
An angelic portrait of Waggie as created by Laura’s friend, Juanita Cijntje.
Laura is very grateful to everyone who contributed to the effort to try and help save Wagner, and appreciates the many condolences everyone has expressed.
Wagner was a gentle giant and will live on in the hearts and minds of many people around the world.
Photo of Waggie enjoying a park in Amsterdam by Mayke Milder.
“He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest . . .”
A New Chapter: Introducing Nugget
After the loss of Wagner, Laura took some time to mourn the loss of her loyal companion and then enrolled in a new training session at the Seeing Eye Guide Dog School where she had first been introduced to Wagner.
Her new guide dog is named Nugget, as in ‘gold nugget’, and is a beautiful Chocolate Labrador Retriever. He was younger than Wagner was when Laura began working with him, but has been steadily maturing into his role as a guide dog and is a quick learner.
Laura is very grateful to Nugget’s puppy raisers for the wonderful job they did in raising a loving and intelligent dog and understands how hard it must have been for them to ‘send him off to school’. It is truly a gift that keeps on giving.
In the photos below, clock-wise from the top left, Laura and Nugget visit the statue of Seeing Eye Founder Morris Frank and Buddy, the very first guide dog in the U.S., in downtown Morristown, New Jersey; Laura and Nugget have their portrait taken at The Seeing Eye Guide Dog School with their trainer Janice Abbott; bottom right shows Nugget still thinking he’s a lap puppy at Laura’s mother’s house in the Netherlands; bottom right shows Laura and Nugget standing in front of a house modeled after a railway station while training and visiting friends in the United States.
In addition to ‘Waggie’s Angels’ mentioned in the article, Laura also wishes to thank the following ‘angels’:
Her mother Beatrice Meddens and friends Ralph van der Ent and Jack Desmares for their help and support;
Loeki Mollenaar for her kind support, especially during Waggie’s cremation;
John White, Wendy Alden, Helen Hoitsma-Pappa and Lawrence Sonnntag for their help in publicizing the Indiegogo campaign to help cover some of the costs of sending Laura & Wagner to the clinical trial in Texas, and Waggie’s veterinary costs not covered by the clinical trial;
Chief Michael Guidry and his Staff at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection Office and Officer Robert C. Spooner and his colleagues at the HSCPB Deferred Inspections Office at IAH Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston for their kind help with processing the necessary documents;
The Crew of the KLM flights between Amsterdam and Houston;
The Management & Staff of the Residence Inn Hotel, College Station;
JD Black, Terry Dietz and the rest of the staff at Northgate Taxi, College Station.
Thank You To Our Indiegogo.com Donors
Your generous and thoughtful contributions helped to make this happen, and they continue to support ongoing research as Dr. Colleen O’Connor outlines in our article how data gathered from Wagner’s T-Cells provide ongoing new information that contributes to refining the process towards standardizing non-toxic cancer therapies for other dogs and humans.
In alphabetical order, our very special thanks to:
Karel Frielink – Spigt Curaçao
de Graaf Family
Maarten Reinier de Graaf
Jan Willem Hoitsma
Maarten van Zadelhoff
And an equally heartfelt Thank You for additional donations outside the Indiegogo campaign from:
Ludo and Gemma Commisaris
Ellen Wijnants van Resandt
And ongoing gratitude to our Corporate and Non-Profit Supporters who are helping to build the foundation of our Abled initiative: