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In human medicine, our growing knowledge about the role of viruses as a cause of certain cancers has led to the development of vaccines as preventives, such as vaccines against human papillomaviruses, the main cause of cervical cancer in women. Cancer-causing viruses also are becoming better known in veterinary medicine, and researchers are looking for likely viral culprits, including those that may play a role in the development of feline lymphoma.

Dr. Julia Beatty – cat owner, veterinarian, infectious disease scientist and feline medicine specialist – is one of those researchers. One of Dr. Beatty’s research interests is defining the role viruses play in the development of feline cancer, particularly lymphoma. Lymphoma is one of the most common types of cancer in cats worldwide, accounting for one-third of all feline cancer diagnoses. For Dr. Beatty, who is an associate professor at the University of Sydney, it’s an all-too-common enemy.

“Two things really struck me,” said Dr. Beatty, who was inspired by mentors to pursue her line of research. “How little we know about the actual causes of feline lymphomas, and that there might be viruses causing these cancers in cats.”

Dr. Beatty hypothesized that if viruses were the triggers behind cancer development, then treatment could be targeted at the viruses rather then just the cancer. It’s research that Morris Animal Foundation is helping to fund, with support from donors like Gregg and Melissa Bernhardt, who adopted their cat Sarah (pictured above) when she was 6 months old, and then later lost her to lymphoma. 

“Sarah had been re-homed five times when we adopted her,” Gregg said. “She was continually returned to the shelter because she was skittish. She was so scared, poor thing. We knew all she needed was time and stability.”

With Gregg and Melissa’s loving care, Sarah became a new cat, and was the picture of health. So Gregg and Melissa were surprised and concerned with Sarah began to lose weight, and then stopped eating altogether. They took Sarah to their veterinarian where they received the shocking news that Sarah had lymphoma, and the cancer was already involving her entire intestinal tract.

“It was very aggressive,” said Gregg. “The cancer quickly spread to her eyes, causing pain. We elected to do surgery to relieve the pressure but Sarah died. We had a feeling of helplessness.”

Through her research, Dr. Beatty is hoping to replace that feeling of helplessness with hope.

“When you identify that a virus can cause a particular cancer, you can treat that cancer differently,” said Dr. Beatty. “But the most exciting thing of all would be to vaccinate against the virus and prevent the cancers from growing in the first place. This is the same principle as cervical cancer vaccines for women.”            

Dr. Beatty is a face of hope for cat owners everywhere whose beloved feline companions are touched by lymphoma. Her research could change the way veterinarians treat this dreaded disease and save the lives of thousands of cats. Like Dr. Beatty, Gregg and Melissa also are faces of hope in the fight against cancer. In addition to Sarah, they have also lost two dogs to cancer, Chloe and Chance, and currently are treating a third dog, Luke, for cancer. As donors, they give to the foundation to help fund studies that will make a difference in the fight against cancer.