Susan Lana’s path toward healthcare started with an undergraduate degree in medical technology from University of Iowa and jobs inblood banks and chemistry labs, but she always felt like there was something more out there.
“I was toying with medical school or veterinary school,” says Lana. “I also was volunteering at the Denver Dumb Friends League and I would take puppies and kittens on nursing home visits. I found that I really liked the puppies and kittens.”
Lana liked the animal interaction so much that she went to Colorado State University, where she earned a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 1993. She completed a small animal internship at Texas A&M University and returned to CSU for specialty training in medical oncology. She then earned board certification from the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and also a Masters in Clinical Sciences.
Like physicians that practice family medicine, many veterinarians cater to pets with a variety of illnesses and conditions. During vet school, Lana found that instead of being a generalist, she could be a specialist – for her that specialty was medical oncology.
“After my first year of vet school, I got a summer fellowship job to work in one of the laboratories here at the Flint Animal Cancer Center. And loved it,” says Lana. “I loved the idea of studying cancer. I loved the idea that oncology was a specialty in veterinary medicine and that I could treat patients that had cancer.”
At that point she learned that some of the cancers affecting veterinary patients are similar to cancers that affect humans. In fact, osteosarcoma (bone cancer) in humans and canines is very similar in its biologic behavior, appearance under the microscope, and even genetically. The realization opened the doors of translational medicine – that studying diseases and treatments that affect veterinary patients can provide useful information about the same disease in humans, ultimately helping everyone affected by cancer.
Lana’s description of CSU’s FIint Animal Cancer Center, where she is the chief of the oncology clinic service, even sounds an awful lot like clinics where humans go for treatment.
“We have surgical oncology, radiation oncology and medical oncology all seeing cases on the same schedule and under the same umbrella, a multidisciplinary approach which is unique in veterinary medicine,” Lana says. “If I see a case that needs radiation or surgery, we can see that patient in one day, in the same room together, and it lets us give our patients the very best treatment options that we can.”
Back to osteosarcoma. Even when the primary tumor is surgically removed, the pet patients still end up with incurable, metastatic disease. One of Lana’s goals is to study her patients’ tumors to learn why.
“We use the material that comes into the clinic,” says Lana. “We look at different treatment modalities, combinations of surgery or radiation combined with chemotherapy. Some of the things we learn in our veterinary patients can then be translated to help human patients.”
Studying how cancer grows and can be treated in companion animals such as dogs can predict how it may act in people, sometimes much more so than studies in small animals like mice.
“There are a couple advantages to working with companion animals,” says Lana. “They are in our world, experiencing our same environment and, like people, they develop cancer spontaneously. They have an intact immune system. Their life spans are shorter than humans, with or without cancer, so we can often come to conclusions more quickly.”
Lana’s research interests include experimental therapeutics and clinical trials. She also implemented and runs the tumor biorepository at the Flint Animal Cancer Center which holds over 20,000 samples. And while Lana focuses on animals in the clinic, she also works with people, helping pet parents make sometimes gut wrenching decisions with their animal companions’ best interests at heart.
We don’t want the treatment to be worse than the disease,” she says. “We outline standard of care, clinical trial options or what it looks like to choose none of the above.”
Caring for puppies and kittens was one of the reasons Susan Lana became a vet. But the desire to use what she learns to help people with cancerdrives her career.