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Virginia Tech radiation oncologist giving families ‘more time with their pets’

Ilektra Athanasiadi
Image courtesy Virginia Tech

Demand is growing for radiation oncology services for pets, and the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center at Virginia Tech is one of two facilities in the Commonwealth meeting the need.

Radiation oncologist Ilektra Athanasiadi is one of only 140 veterinary radiation oncologists in the country. Pet owners often travel hours to receive radiation therapy to treat their animals diagnosed with cancer.

“Some people say [this job] is sad, but I think it’s really, really rewarding. We give hope to the owners, even if it’s for a short time,” said Athanasiadi. “Seeing them being happy that we can give them more time with their pets is amazing. Most of the cases with radiation, we can give them a good quality of life for the time they have left, so that’s very important,” she said.

The Animal Cancer Care and Research Center is one of the three hospitals part of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

What Athanasiadi learns from treating pets and through her research may have potential benefits for humans as well.

She’s currently working with Robert Gourdie, professor and director of the Center for Vascular and Heart Research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. Gourdie’s lab has developed a drug designed to heal the heart muscle after a heart attack. Current radiation treatment damages healthy tissue around the cancer. Drugs like this one could be useful particularly in cases of head and neck cancers in humans.

Athanasiadi is also currently conducting a study on dogs with oral tumors, testing a device that delivers chemotherapy drugs directly to the tumor. The system has been used for other cancers, but it has the potential to be particularly useful for oral tumors, some of which can be difficult to remove surgically.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.