The diagnosis of cancer in a loved one—whether human or animal—is difficult and challenging. Research by faculty through the Auburn University Research Initiative in Cancer seeks to find new cancer treatments for both animals and humans.
Dr. Bruce Smith, a professor of pathobiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine and AURIC’s director, leads a university effort to find cures for cancer through the work of researchers across Auburn.
The focus of Dr. Smith’s cancer research is osteosarcoma, the most common primary bone tumor found in dogs. It accounts for up to 85 percent of all malignancies originating in the skeleton. Osteosarcoma primarily occurs in middle aged to older dogs, with a median age of seven years.
In humans, however, it is most often found in teenagers, as was the case in 2011 when Scott Shockley was diagnosed with the rare pediatric bone cancer.
With a competitor’s heart and an unmatched excitement for life, Shockley and his family were, like everyone who receives a cancer diagnosis, heartbroken and shocked.
And while medical treatments and doctor appointments became a part of his life, so did Auburn.
“Scott’s greatest passion was playing sports, being part of a team, and competing at a high level,” said Scott’s dad, Steve Shockley.
While attending high school, The Walker School in Marietta, Ga., Shockley was a three sport athlete lettering in baseball, football, and basketball, and was a nationally ranked long snapper. He received numerous athletic awards, including Pitcher of the Year, was Homecoming King and a member of Walker’s Peer Leadership and Cobb County Youth Leadership.
When Shockley enrolled at Auburn in 2012, his love of sports didn’t waiver and, during his freshman year, he became a manager for the Tigers’ baseball team.
“Scott felt like Auburn was the place for him, and he loved Auburn,” Steve Shockley said. “He made many new friends and felt right at home.”
Although Scott’s cancer returned and he had to take classes online while receiving treatments in Atlanta, he kept in touch with baseball players and coaches, and was able join them for a few home games.
“Scott came in with a positive attitude and a great work ethic,” said Scott Duvall with Auburn Athletics, who became a friend of Scott’s. “He was a perfect fit within the baseball program from day one and immediately became ‘one of the guys’.
“Despite the challenges he faced, he always had a smile on his face. He was friendly and made others feel special and appreciated.
“Those are the reasons he made such an impact in such a short period of time with us [Auburn Baseball]. And those are the reasons his parents are close to the program to this day, because of Scott’s impact on others.”
Sadly, Scott Shockley died in July 2013 after a 26-month battle with the disease.
Seeking a way to help other families suffering from the disease and to fulfill Scott’s wishes, the family established the Scott Shockley Foundation in 2014 to support research and finding a cure for osteosarcoma, as well as providing awareness about early detection and treatment.
After learning about Dr. Smith’s research, the Shockley Foundation awarded a research grant to Dr. Smith to move research toward a cure.
Scott’s mother, Terriann Shockley, says the family and the foundation board were supportive after learning about Dr. Smith’s research because of the need for new treatment options for osteosarcoma patients.
“The chemotherapy treatment used today has not changed in the past 30 years,” she said. “Funding this research seemed fitting because of Scott’s love for his Brittany Spaniel, Daisy, and many connections to Auburn.” Scott’s sister, Stacy, is a 2012 alum; as was his oncologist, Dr. Thomas Cash; he had several friends who attended or are attending Auburn; and, retired professional baseball pitcher and AU Tim Hudson’s family foundation awards a yearly scholarship to a baseball manager in memory of Scott.
AURIC and the Scott Shockley Foundation were recognized by the college and Auburn Athletics during pregame ceremonies before a packed house at Plainsman Park this past spring. Steve Shockley, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and the family and the college were recognized for their commitment to finding a cure.
Dr. Smith’s current research uses an oncolytic virus which attacks and kills cancer cells without harming healthy cells. Initial clinical trials in dogs with osteosarcoma showed promise and Dr. Smith and his group are now designing new and more potent second generation viruses.
His research is a collaboration with Andrew Hessel, a distinguished research scientist with Autodesk Inc. The team is working advance cancer treatment by tailoring the virus to each patient.
Hessel’s research focuses on ‘synthetic biology,’ essentially “printing” DNA, and in the process, customizing the strands, creating personalized oncolytic viruses.
While moving to human clinical trials with this method is still a ways off, Dr. Smith hopes that this method of customizing and printing viruses can be achieved within a year. The grant from the Shockley Foundation will be used to identify genes within osteosarcoma tumor cells that can be targeted by the virus.
Despite the long road ahead, Dr. Smith is optimistic about the potential for the research to give patients, both human and animal, hope for a disease that affects so many.
“It’s amazing: we see dogs with cancer, and people are surprised. Dogs get cancer at the same rates that humans do, and often the same types,” Dr. Smith said. “The research Andrew and I are doing ties directly to the concept of One Medicine.
“This research has the potential to shift the paradigm.”
NOTE: AURIC will hold its annual research symposium Aug. 25-26 at Grand National in Opelika, where AURIC researchers will discuss and showcase current research.