It sounds like the start of a late-night bit: David Letterman walks into the veterinary teaching hospital and asks if we are going to fit him with a “cone of shame.” But this is no joke (although there were plenty of wise cracks). As part of a partnership with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Letterman and Indy car legend Bobby Rahal visited the Flint Animal Cancer Center at CSU’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital Tuesday, July 24, to learn more about cancer in animals.
Except for the fluffy white beard and celebrity aura, the comedian could have been a very focused vet student, asking thoughtful questions of the veterinary researchers and clinicians about osteosarcoma, clinical trials and brain tumors.
“I’ve had pets all my life, and my activity with pets has been, ‘can you bring in a stool sample?’ That’s pretty much my activity with pets. I’ve had cats with cancer, and a dog that when he finally passed away, the vet said he was wall-to-wall tumors. This is both familiar and foreign because of the sophistication of what we’re sitting in the middle of,” said Letterman as he viewed images of a dog’s brain tumor on a large monitor in the hospital’s new radiation oncology suite with Dr. Keara Boss and Dr. Del Leary.
“How big is a dog’s brain, like a walnut, right?” Letterman asked.
“A little bigger than a walnut, depending on the size of the dog,” Boss said, playing it straight.
“Show me that part again. So the tumor is sitting on his brain?” Letterman asked, leaning in to see the glowing white blob on an MRI image of the dog’s brain.
“It’s interesting, once you start looking into something about which you know very little, you find out that there’s an enormous culture of fascinating, and in this case, great things being done that heretofore I didn’t know about. To use a word that is overused, it is overwhelming. The positivity of it, coming to me through the staff here, is a manifestation of the work that is being done.”
In the oncology clinic, surrounded by canine patients and actual veterinary students, Dr. Steve Withrow and Dr. Nicole Ehrhart explained how they save the legs of dogs with bone cancer.
“Wait, I have a question. Does this research apply to humans?” Letterman asked.
“A bone is a bone,” deadpanned Withrow, who pioneered the limb-saving procedure that is now common in human and canine osteosarcoma cases. As they exited the room, Letterman paused by an exam table and asked, “Can I have a pair of these rubber gloves? Thank you,” he said, stuffing the blue nitrile gloves into the pocket of his brown jeans.
“Good luck, Stella!” he hollered over his shoulder to a border collie patient as the tour continued.
In the clinical trials room, Dr. Steve Dow welcomed Letterman by asking him how his blood pressure was. He answered with a chuckle, “Mine’s in the 140s, thank you. I take hundreds of medications.”
Dow and Dr. Kristen Weishaar explained how CSU’s research on cancer immunotherapies has led to a collaboration with pediatric oncologists at Children’s Hospital Colorado to study the blood-pressure drug losartan as a treatment for metastatic bone cancer in dogs and kids.
“The legacy of these animals who fall prey to cancer, and animals who are treated in a facility like this — who knows, it may be the key, the piece of the puzzle that completes the attack on cancer in humans. So that’s something to be hopeful about,” Letterman said.
“The trick is you take a lot more (losartan) than for blood pressure,” Dow said. “We will be moving from four-legged patients to two-legged patients in a human clinical trial this fall.”
“There are two things to take away from this,” Letterman mused. “There’s the selfish aspect, which is all of my pets have had to go to the vet. Some have not made it through alive, some have made it through alive. But this brightens the hope for what might have been a dire situation. That’s the personal side. But the larger side of this for society, is that it’s working in concert with human medical research. There’s a significant overlap in the chemistry and the treatment of both species. I think cancer is still the enemy we really have to vanquish.”
And in the way he often does in his television interviews, Letterman made a left turn into humor. “Is there anything you can’t do here? Is anyone here working on a replacement for the damn cone? There’s a Nobel Prize in that.”
The Letterman family has two yellow labs, Dutch, 3, and Sully, 7. As with most things in his life, he frets about them. “Because of the way I am, I worry myself sick about them: are they healthy, how long will they be healthy? The love and companionship and the entertainment that they bring you is immeasurable,” Letterman said. “Having toured this facility, I now feel much better about that. That makes the trip all the more worthwhile.”
Racing toward a cure for cancer
When asked about the link between car racing and cancer research, David Letterman deferred to his racing team co-owner, Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. The two visited Colorado State as part of their partnership with the Flint Animal Cancer Center’s One Cure project.
“I love the passion and the enthusiasm here. We can provide awareness and introduce people to what One Cure is all about. My son Graham is a big dog lover and has become the face of One Cure,” said the proud father.
One Cure is the primary sponsor of Graham Rahal’s No. 15 Verizon IndyCar Series entry in races in Phoenix and Portland. Jay Howard drove the CSU One Cure car in this year’s Indianapolis 500, and Clint Bowyer drives the One Cure No. 14 Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
These sponsorships are result of the behind-the-scenes work of an anonymous donor who loves racing – and dogs – and wishes to help the cancer center raise awareness and support of One Cure with a new audience, on a larger scale.
“On behalf of our team, thank you for the amazing things that are happening with One Cure and CSU,” Rahal told the cancer center team during the visit. “The more you understand what is going on here, it gives you great hope for the future. Keep pushing, we’re behind you the whole way.”
Look out, because that crew is fast.