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Monday, November 30, 2009

New radiation treatment saves cancer-stricken rhinoceros

[Thought this was an interesting special case in applied radiation.]


By Cristina Chang

Nov. 30, 2009 at 2:11 a.m.

Leah Greer was running out of options.

The senior clinical veterinarian at the Los Angeles Zoo had performed three surgeries on Randa the rhino, immobilizing her and removing part of her horn, but the bacterial infection persisted. The third biopsy confirmed squamous cell carcinoma, a skin cancer, in Randa’s horn. Three surgeries later, Greer realized that the cancer was more aggressive than previously thought.

Discussing the case at a meeting with the zoo’s medical advisory board, she sought a cost-efficient way to perform radiation treatment on the 4,000-pound Indian rhinoceros, which was too large to be carried into a radiation facility.

Dr. James Economou, a UCLA oncologist and member of the board, advised she speak to a colleague of his, Dr. Michael Steinberg.

Steinberg was working with Xoft, Inc., a company specializing in radiation oncology, to develop affordable and portable radiation devices, Greer said.

Steinberg, the chair of radiation oncology at UCLA, said Economou described the complicated situation.

“We can’t put her in a room since she’s a big wild animal,” Steinberg said.

As a result, Steinberg said he worked with Xoft, Inc., medical physicists and surgeons and the zookeeper to find a way to treat the animal.

During the summer, Randa was again immobilized with anesthetics while surgeons, including Economou, removed her horn. Steinberg and the radiation team then slipped Randa’s head into a portable device.

A week later, she went through another round of radiation.

The device emits soft radiation but is shielded with thin strips of lead sheeting about an inch thick to prevent the rays from penetrating others, Steinberg said.

“We basically applied basic principles of cancer,” he added. “We generalized what we knew about humans for this treatment.”

He said working with a wild animal is different from dealing with a person but added that squamous cell carcinoma can also occur in humans on the skin, tonsils, tongue and esophagus.

Seven surgeries and a removed horn later, Randa is doing well and remains extremely loving and tactile, said Stephanie Zielinski, Randa’s primary keeper.

Zielinski was placed in charge of Randa two years ago, around the time that the rhino developed cancer.

“It’s like when someone’s been ill for quite some time and (you) see light back in their eyes,” she said.

Every day at lunchtime, the rhino enclosure is a gathering place for keepers, and the rhino comes to play around and be touched, Zielinski added.

“She taught me how to be patient,” she said. “Even at her most ill, she would participate and try and do what we were asking for us.”

Greer has also seen improvements in Randa’s health and mood.

“She’s really a fantastic animal, 40 years old now,” Greer said. “It’s amazing how well she feels (the past few months),” she said, adding that Randa has been acting playfully as though she were young again.


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