By Yasmeen Abutaleb
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When George Goldner went to feed his six pet pigs earlier this year, his 730-pound (331-kg) companion Nemo was acting strangely. Nemo had suddenly stopped eating and laid in the mud.
So Goldner loaded Nemo into a trailer and drove more than two hours to Cornell University Hospital for Animals (CUHA) in Ithaca, New York. There he learned his four-year-old Hampshire pig had what doctors believed was the blood cancer B-cell lymphoma.
The hospital's researchers told Goldner they had never seen a pig treated for cancer. But that did not deter Goldner, a self-described animal lover, who asked doctors to devise a way to treat his pig based on their knowledge of cancer in dogs and humans and not worry about costs.
Now, four months after Goldner first rushed to the hospital, Nemo has made history as the first known pig to undergo lymphoma treatment - and successfully - leaving researchers with hope for advancements in treating cancer in large animals.
"Before when large animals were diagnosed with cancer, it was pretty much impossible to treat them," said Emily Barrell, a resident who picked all of Nemo's chemotherapy drugs and delivered them. "Now we have a model to base it on."
Because pigs have necks bigger than many humans, their veins are difficult to access, Barrell said, making it impossible to deliver many of the aggressive drugs needed for chemotherapy.
Doctors at CUHA consulted with researchers in other fields before implanting a vascular access port, which is a small metal port with a silicone cover, directly under Nemo's skin behind his ear.
The port contained a catheter that ran through a jugular vein in his neck, allowing Nemo to receive the sort of cancer treatment administered to dogs and humans.
Nemo is now believed to be in remission, Barrell said, and will return home in September if everything goes according to plan.
Goldner and doctors at CUHA declined to specify how much Nemo's treatment cost. The cost of chemotherapy for an average-sized golden retriever is $4,000-$5,000 from start to finish, Barrell said, and Nemo is seven or eight times the size of that.
"There were two choices: One was to let him die and the other was to give it a shot," Goldner said in an interview. "Now I think (Nemo) is definitely bound to provide some help."
Though some may criticize the cost of treating such large animals, Barrell said it has become common practice for cat and dog owners to pay for cancer treatment, and it is up to owners to decide how much they are willing to pay.
"This is exactly the type of clinical veterinary research we should be doing to treat disease in other animals," said Justin Goodman, director of laboratory investigation at animal rights group PETA.
Nemo's appetite is back and he's treated like a "big star" at CUHA, Goldner said.
"(Nemo) is a really special story about people being innovative and owners being dedicated," Barrell said.
(Reporting By Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Cynthia Osterman)