For some animal health professionals, the journey toward veterinary medicine is like a calling—a fulfilling, natural vocation. This was certainly the case for Michelle Oblak, DVM, DVSc., DACVS.
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a veterinarian,” she tells Veterinary Practice News Canada. “While other kids were out enjoying their summers, I started volunteering at a veterinary clinic at the age of 10—which seems crazy to think about now—and spent every Saturday and summer working there until I came to the University of Guelph.”
After obtaining her DVM from the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) in 2008, Dr. Oblak completed a rotating internship and combined Residency/Doctor of Veterinary Science (DVSc.) in Small Animal Surgery. She then served as a post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Florida (UF), where she received her designation as an ACVS Fellow, Surgical Oncology, before returning to her alma mater in 2013.
“At the end of my fellowship, OVC was opening a cancer centre and had just lost its surgical oncologist,” she says. “So, I said ‘goodbye’ to Florida’s palm trees and accepted a faculty position in soft tissue surgery and surgical oncology in Guelph.”
These days, Oblak is busy as ever—particularly in the realm of translational research. Indeed, in addition to her position as an associate professor of soft tissue and oncologic surgery in OVC’s department of clinical studies, she also has several collaborations, considering dogs as a naturally occurring disease model for cancer in humans.
Among these is a “seek and destroy” non-surgical cancer treatment option, which combines light-activated nanoparticles, called Porphysomes, with photodynamic therapy (PDT). The technique may, ultimately, offer a targeted, non-surgical way to diagnose and treat tumours in pets and humans, which could prevent over-treatment and reduce common side effects.
“There’s a lot of interest in this as a non-surgical option,” Oblak says of the therapy. “This could really revolutionize many different aspects of cancer treatment and diagnosis.”
Oblak also serves as OVC’s inaugural Animal Health Partners Research Chair in Veterinary Medical Innovation. The five-year appointment, which carries a million dollars in funding, takes a One Health approach to medical innovation and strives for advancement in many areas, including surgery, oncology, imaging, radiation therapy, internal medicine, machine learning, nutrition, and pathology.
“Clinical trials are vital to veterinary medicine, as well as the potential to translate innovations to human medicine,” she says. “Dogs live in similar environments to humans and have similar ailments. There is a lot we can learn about treatments in animals that can then be applied to humans.”
Veterinary Practice News Canada recently spoke to Oblak—who also serves as president of the Veterinary Society of Surgical Oncology (VSSO), an international organization that works to advance the understanding and improve treatment of veterinary patients with cancer—to learn more about her journey toward surgical oncology and discuss the ways in which her research at OVC could change the way cancer is diagnosed and treated.
1) What inspired you to pursue surgical oncology as a specialization?
Surgical oncology really considers the whole patient and what is best for them. It often requires looking at things differently and being creative. Often as surgeons, we look at something and think, “Yes, I have the skills to do that complex surgery,” but we sometimes forget to take a step back and make sure this is the right option for the patient.
A great example of this is some of the major skull and maxillofacial surgeries. I remember being a resident and seeing a dog with a large necrotic oral tumour extending into the skull. His quality of life was poor, and everyone was recommending euthanasia. It turned out the tumour was benign and, with a large maxillectomy and reconstruction, he went on to live several more years and died from something completely unrelated.
My mentor used to say, “Dogs don’t look in the mirror”—this saying, combined with a desire to ensure the best quality of life possible, has really motivated me!
2) What can you tell us about the Porphysomes clinical research trial underway at OVC?
This work is a collaboration with human researchers and surgical oncologists at the University Health Network in Toronto. The pilot study will give us a preliminary look at how this agent, Porphysomes, distributes within the cancer (thyroid tumours) and the effect of light to kill some of the cells within the tumour. Since there is a huge difference in the tumour environment between induced (preclinical models) and naturally occurring cancer, and we can gain a ton of insight on the distribution, mechanisms, and effect in our patients. We’ve already made great progress and, this summer, we are expanding our recruitment to include dogs with oral tumours and cats with oral squamous cell carcinoma.
3) How do you hope this research influences the future of cancer treatment for both animals and humans?
We are learning a lot about the agent itself—some simple things, like the best time to give it before treatment, and some significant things, like how it behaves within the tumour. The information we gain will allow us to study many different applications and cancer types. Excitingly, Porphysomes will soon be in human clinical trials, and what we learn in pets can be applied to the human trials, which will allow for refinement and more efficient protocols for these studies as well.
4) What are some of the advantages laser light therapy offers patients as compared to other methods of treatment?
We are hopeful Porphysomes will allow us to treat cancer in a new way. This therapy could help to deal with residual (microscopic cancer) in settings where surgery is possible, allowing us to have a better chance of achieving local control. In addition, we may be able to offer an option for patients who are not surgical candidates or as an alternative to surgery, which could ultimately be beneficial with minimal side effects.
5) What are some other research topics your team at OVC is exploring right now that you’re excited about?
I am very lucky to have a great team with Natalie Mashtaler, RVT, and research manager, Charly McKenna—we are all equally passionate about advancing companion animal medicine and providing the best care for our patients! Our research primarily focuses on the use of near infrared fluorescence imaging in surgery. This spans from the most commonly available fluorescence agent, ICG [indocyanine green], to more novel and cancer specific agents still in the scientific discovery phases.
Harnessing technology to improve surgical outcomes is both fun and rewarding. Not many people get to make their patients “glow in the dark”! We are excited to showcase the many applications of near infrared technology in veterinary medicine (not just in cancer), while also investigating its translational use in humans.