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Treating animals with cancer is never easy, particularly if your research focuses on osteosarcoma, one of the most deadly forms of cancer in dogs. However, for Dr. Tim Fan, a veterinary oncologist at the University of Illinois, the consequences of this devastating disease are all the more reason he feels compelled to make a difference.

Why did you become a veterinarian, and why did you choose oncology as a specialty?

I like the quiet and consistent companionship of animals. When I was in high school, I recognized my love and interest in animals, and becoming a veterinarian was a perfect fit.

After veterinary school, I did a residency in internal medicine. It was during this first residency I found that treating animals with cancer were not only the most personally gratifying cases but also the most interesting cases I managed. I decided to do a second residency in oncology and went on to become a boarded veterinary oncologist. I’ve lost pets to cancer, and I found I strongly empathized with owners whose pets had cancer.

Why pick osteosarcoma as a research focus?

Osteosarcoma in a terrible but common cancer. One of the cruelest aspects of osteosarcoma is the tremendous pain associated with it. One of my initial and ongoing research interests is discovering new strategies to manage bone cancer pain. I felt that once we could manage pain effectively, we could then focus on how to slow down metastasis.

We’ve made advances in controlling pain on two fronts: the use of bisphosphonates, which are easy to prescribe and have few side effects; and more precise radiation treatments, which can be helpful in decreasing pain.

What’s next regarding the treatment of osteosarcoma?

I’m excited by recent developments in immunotherapy for cancer. Immunotherapy harnesses the power of the patient’s immune system to target the destruction of the tumor. The field needs lots of development, but I suspect we’ll see big advances here that will help us treat metastatic osteosarcoma. Our hope is that not only can we treat pain, but we can prolong the lives of dogs with this disease.

Osteosarcoma in children behaves similarly to what we see in dogs, and anything we find in our canine patients could also help children with this type of cancer.

Morris Animal Foundation’s Osteosarcoma Initiative focuses on innovative approaches to combat tumor metastases and provide longer lives for dogs suffering from this form of cancer. Current studies include: looking at the use of the drug rapamycin to stop metastases; using a computer model to determine the best chemotherapy protocol for dogs with osteosarcoma; and understanding how certain microenvironments in the body favor growth of metastatic cells.