The remarkable thing about a Sarasota horse named Benny is that he's still here. A year and a half ago, Benny was suffering terribly from melanoma, a cancer that often afflicts gray-colored horses.
"He was running a fever. His lymph nodes were enlarged. He was just not a happy camper and they really were looking at how soon would it be before we'd have to put him down," recalled Benny's veterinarian, Dr. Beth Brown.
But Dr. Brown had one more thing to try. A treatment called Immunefex, created by a company called Morphogenesis in Tampa. It's an experimental therapy that involved injecting Benny's tumors with a DNA vaccine.
Dr. Brown was astounded by what she saw.
"They dried up and stopped being as reactive and oozing," she said. "Then they started shrinking down. We got extremely excited watching that these things were flattening out."
It wasn't a cure, but the next best thing. The co-founder of Morphogenesis says their work was inspired by their own pets.
"If we can help just one animal, that's huge," offered Dr. Patricia Lawman.
Dr. Lawman explained that Immunefex isn't a drug, but uses the body's own defense system to go on the attack, sending Benny's T-cells to seek and destroy the malignant cells of his tumors.
"We educated Benny's immune system to fight his own tumor cells," she continued. "So what we're doing is putting a big marker on these tumor cells that says 'I'm foreign, get rid of me.'"
It's a type of immunotherapy that has worked, not just for Benny, but lots of dogs and cats too. At least 40 dogs have had their lives extended by Immunefex. A 9-year-old sheltie named Jaxon is currently being treated for bladder cancer and is now asymptomatic.
"It's considered a chronic disease, so if you can just keep it in check so that it doesn't progress, we all think that's a win. So we don't really talk about cures anymore, but what's what we're hoping for," Dr. Lawman added.
Two trials of Immunefex will begin August 1 -- one on horses like Benny, with melanoma; the other on lymphoma in dogs. But the USDA was impressed by how animals are responding to Immunefex and the company expects to get the green light soon to offer the treatment to veterinarians outside Florida.
That's encouraging for vets like Dr. Brown, who expects to encounter more equine patients who might be helped.
"Anything that we can do to get a leg up on cancer and getting the body to have its own immune response and fight cancer within the body is fantastic," Dr. Brown said.
And for the Langston family of Sarasota, they're relieved to have their playful boy, Benny, back to feeling feisty.
"We're quite pleased," beamed Doug Langston. "It was an amazing transformation. I sort of expect he'll be around for a while."
To find out more about Immunefex: http://www.morphogenesis-inc.com/