Combining a busy clinical schedule with a robust research program is no small task, but Dr. Keara Boss makes it look easy. Boss joined the Flint Animal Cancer Center faculty in August 2016 and hit the ground running to help expand the cancer center’s radiation oncology service and also focus on developing her own research program in radiation biology. Her goal is to help both pets and people with cancer. While still early in her career, Boss has already been recognized as a leader and Early Career Investigator in the Radiation Research Society. She is board-certified in radiation oncology and also holds a Ph.D. in radiation biology. Her dual role as a clinician and scientist is unique in veterinary medicine.

“I’m lucky that I can tie together two different angles of my career,” said Boss. “I love the clinical aspect of my job, treating veterinary patients and working with their families. Treatment planning sparks so many interesting conversations within our team, which leads to important questions that then we can investigate through clinical studies, thanks to our strong trials program. It’s also great to step into the lab. Basic science cancer research is critical to understanding what’s happening with our patients at a deeper level. Tumor and normal tissue responses to radiation therapy, and all cancer therapies are complex, and the work coming out of the lab helps to piece it all together.”

After settling into a demanding clinic rotation, Boss has spent the last two years hiring lab staff, purchasing equipment, and applying for funding to support her work in radiation biology research. Never one to start small, she now has several projects in progress.

Boss is focusing her work on head and neck cancers, which are locally aggressive in pet patients and can behave similarly in people. She is most interested in studying the immune effects of radiation therapy. The field of radioimmunology is flourishing; however, many important questions remain.

In a new clinical trial, Boss hopes to address how treating lymph nodes with stereotactic radiation therapy affects the immune response within the tumor and throughout the body in canine patients with oral carcinoma. Canine oral carcinomas share several characteristics with advanced head and neck squamous cell carcinoma in people. Due to the highly translational value of this project, Boss is collaborating with Dr. Sana Karam, a physician-scientist specializing in human head and neck cancer radiation oncology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. This study is part of the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute CO-Pilot Program.

Boss also will be investigating approaches for improving the effectiveness of radiation therapy by combining it with immunotherapy. In collaboration with Dr. Steven Dow, professor of immunology and the director of the Center for Immune and Regenerative Medicine at Colorado State University, she will be studying the immune response of canine cancer patients following treatment with stereotactic body radiation therapy with or without immunotherapy, within tumors, lymph nodes, and throughout the body.

“In the lab and the clinic, radiation therapy, particularly SBRT, has been shown to stimulate a strong immune response against tumor cells,” said Boss. “We want to see if we can further enhance the response when we combine radiation with immunotherapy. My hope is this is the first of many opportunities to work with Dr. Dow on translational radioimmunology studies to improve outcomes for our veterinary cancer patients and, hopefully, people too.”

Thinking about her vision for the future, Boss has an eye on the past. “My mentors, Dr. Mark Dewhirst, Dr. Don Thrall, and Dr. Susan LaRue were all trained at CSU by Dr. Ed Gillette, who pioneered the field of veterinary radiation oncology. They have each contributed so much to promoting comparative oncology in radiation biology research. I have been fortunate to learn from them and, now, I hope to make them proud through my contributions to the field.”