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The gift of Magi

  • Magi and friend Otis running on the beach in October of 2015

    The gift of Magi

    For a golden retriever with so much to give, a three- to six-month prognosis was not enough. So she hung on for another four years.

    Magi and friend Otis in October of 2015.

When Magi the golden retriever knew it was her time to go, she composed a note to her nearly 2,000 loyal Facebook friends, imploring them, as she often did, to embrace the things that make them happy.

“Have a beautiful life and spread the love!” Magi’s final post, on April 28, 2020, concluded. “And please look after my mommy and daddy — I tried to teach them everything I could … but sometimes they’re slow learners! It’s my time. Don’t be sad! I love you!”

The improbable part was not that Magi (pronounced MAH-ji) drafted the post. It was that she did so nearly five years after being diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive, incurable cancer that came with a prognosis of just three to six months.

That she left terminal expectations in the dust could be due to a combination of factors. But to Pete and Tina Gumbrecht, the aforementioned mommy and daddy, there was just one explanation.

“As every oncologist said, it’s three to six months no matter what the treatment,” Pete Gumbrecht said. “The only variable was the trial.”

The trial he referred to was called the SRCBST-2 study, which used a novel, safe drug called eBAT, developed at the University of Minnesota, to target hemangiosarcoma. In three different trials performed at the University’s Lewis Small Animal Hospital in St. Paul over the past seven years, the drug has repeatedly shown high marks for safety, improved survival for a subset of dogs with this terminal disease, and even showed potential as a cancer preventative when given to dogs at high risk of developing hemangiosarcoma. Magi’s journey to the trial began 2,000 miles away in Manhattan Beach, CA, where the Gumbrechts brought home a precocious golden furball who, from the start, embodied love.

A story of love

“The Gift of the Magi,” the turn-of-the-twentieth century short tale by O. Henry, tells the story of Della and Jim Dillingham Young, a young, poor couple with only two possessions of value: Della’s beautiful hair and the pocket watch Jim inherited from his father, who had inherited it from his. As the tale goes, each, unbeknownst to the other, sells their prized possession at Christmastime to buy the other the perfect, but now useless, gift: for Della, a set of fine combs; for Jim, a platinum-fob watch chain.

For the Gumbrechts, the story is about pure love.

“When one person does something nice for the other, we say ‘Magi’,” Pete explained. “That was always the thing. So when we got this puppy, there was no discussion. It was pure love, she was Magi. And she’s been a mirror of hope from day one.”

From the start, Magi was happy-go-lucky, the Gumbrechts said. She said hello to everybody she met, and loved hikes in the woods, daily trips to the beach, and weekly play dates with her canine pack friends. Her calling card was to greet visitors with a flip-flop in the mouth, a guttural groan of happiness, and a wag that began at the tail and snaked through her body.

“She was the life of the party,” Tina said. “When we sprung her loose, she went running out the gate to the male dogs on the other side of the fence, and did laps up and down with them.”

Added Pete: “She had so much life and so much spirit. Never met somebody she didn’t love, never met a body of water she didn’t want to jump into.”

Familiar signs

Another of Magi’s favorite pastimes was a daily visit with Pete to a local coffee shop called Peet’s Coffee, about half a mile from the Gumbrecht’s home in Manhattan Beach, to chat with a cohort of local retirees.

One day, in August of 2015, Magi, lethargic, would not stand up when it was time to leave the coffee shop. Pete was immediately concerned; the Gumbrechts had previously lost a golden retriever to suspected hemangiosarcoma, and he recognized potential telltale signs. Pete took Magi in his arms for the walk home, put her in the car, and went to the vet clinic. A tumor had grown on Magi’s spleen and then burst. Her spleen was removed, a biopsy confirmed it was hemangiosarcoma, and an oncologist rendered a heartbreaking prognosis: Magi had three to six months, and the disease was fatal. (Fatal is true in most cases, but 10-15% of dogs with hemangiosarcoma will survive for at least one year after their diagnosis and a small number will be exceptional survivors, remaining alive three to five years after their diagnosis.)

Pete, admittedly stubborn, was not having the prognosis. He began reading everything he could find on hemangiosarcoma, focusing on scientific abstracts and universities doing research on the disease.

“That’s where I found Dr. Modiano,” Pete said, referring to Jaime Modiano, VMD, PhD, the eBAT trial’s principal investigator and a professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences. Pete said he couldn’t find an email address for Modiano, so he guessed. He sent an email explaining the situation and threw in some photos for good measure. Modiano answered less than 30 minutes later.

Modiano told Pete on a Wednesday that, in fact, he was starting a new round of the trial on the following Monday. If Magi could get screened for eligibility and make it to St. Paul by then, she would be welcome into the trial.

Pete and Tina found out on Friday that Magi met the eligibility requirements. “However you want to think about it, all the stars aligned,” Pete said. “That I got his email right, that he responded so quickly, that Magi’s tests were up to snuff.”

By 5:30 a.m. Saturday, Magi and the Gumbrechts found themselves at Peet’s Coffee, where, while grabbing some caffeine for the road, they logged into Facebook, created a profile for Magi, and drafted the first post.

“My parents just found out I have something called hemangio sarcoma, it sounds silly, but I can tell it makes them sad,” the post reads, in part. “I don't want them to be sad! We are going on a road trip to a place called the University of Minnesota which is supposed to help.”

They arrived at the small animal hospital Monday morning, having spent two days on the road. Despite that Magi was not a fan of car rides, she greeted Amber Winter, the trial’s research technician specialist, with classic Magi love. “When we met Amber, the first thing she asked was if Magi was the new best friend she had been waiting for,” Tina said. (Winter and the Gumbrechts remain friends to this day.)

Magi was screened and given her first dose of the eBAT treatment. A feeling of hope sparked in Tina and Pete, even if it dovetailed with the fear of the unknown that comes from an experimental treatment. “That was maybe the beginning of hope, even though we didn’t want to have too much hope,” Pete said. “I was focusing on Christmas, thinking, ‘Is our pup going to be there at Christmas time? Because that would be an awfully sad Christmas if she wasn’t.’

“But I think the feeling that she will actually be here started to take hold.”

A center for hope

“People come here for a glimpse of hope, something other than the standard,” says Antonella Borgatti, the director of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Clinical Investigation Center (CIC), which marshals significant personnel and infrastructural resources to facilitate clinical research such as the eBAT trials. “They come here because they would do anything for their dog.”

Magi enrolled early on in the second trial. Patients would have surgery to remove a cancerous splenic mass, and, in this trial, they would receive three cycles of eBAT: three weekly treatments repeated three times over the course of three months—while beginning standard-of-care chemotherapy after the first cycle. 

eBAT, short for EGF bispecific ligan-targeted angiotoxin, attacks not only  tumor cells, but also a group of  cells the tumor uses to protect itself. These cells are not necessarily malignant. Think of the hemangiosarcoma tumor as a mafia boss, and the surrounding cells as henchmen. Without the henchmen, the boss becomes powerless to act. The drug was invented by Daniel Vallera, PhD and a professor at the University’s Medical School and Masonic Cancer Center.

From the start, Magi responded well to treatment. Over the next two months, the Gumbrechts would drive or fly to St. Paul for additional rounds and follow-up. While back and forth to Minnesota, the family made time to knock off bucket-list items intended to give their terminal pup joy with whatever time she had left. 

Magi visited Duluth and flew in a seaplane, which she loved, the Gumbrechts said. She swam in Lake Superior. She ate walleye in Stillwater and crossed the historic lift bridge to Wisconsin—marking Magi’s ninth state during their back-and-forth road trips. She hiked in Aspen and went sailing in San Diego. And she—with the help of her adoring parents—documented it all on Facebook.

“We wanted to start a bucket list for her and document it,” Pete said. “We said, ‘Let’s let her tell her story.’ It’s so cathartic for us to not be telling it in the first person. Let the voice of this endlessly optimistic puppy do the telling.

“But we also thought that if it would be three to six months, if we could be involved with something like the trial that would benefit other dogs and humans, it would be great to document that.”

During a screening ahead of her final round of eBAT, an oncologist found a mass on Magi’s liver. A biopsy would have been too invasive, and the discovery disqualified her from the final dose. Her last visit to St. Paul was in mid-November of 2015. The Gumbrechts and Magi’s oncologist agreed on a change to the chemo protocol based on the suspected disease progression, and the family returned to Manhattan Beach on Nov. 18, three months after Magi had been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma.

By mid-December Magi’s liver mass had disappeared. Magi made it to Christmas that year. She made it to the next four Christmases, in fact. 

“After she made it through Christmas and the new year and she completed the chemo treatment that came after, you took it day by day,” Pete said. “The mentality of still wanting to do bucket-list stuff continued even as the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months and the months turned to years. And you stopped being as worried about it because she had already had so much bonus time— you’re selfish and greedy and you want more.

“At some point it (our mindset) drifted from ‘our puppy is sick’ to ‘our puppy is just a completely normal puppy now, and we’ll take it day by day.’ But what never changed was an appreciation for ‘every day is a gift.’ And you have to remind yourself of that.”

As part of a parallel study called the ShineOn Project, Modiano’s team developed and refined a blood test to assess risk of hemangiosarcoma and other life-threatening cancers in dogs. The test identifies cells that support formation of the tumor environment—the henchmen described earlier. These cells are mobilized into the blood well before the tumor is detectable, and they seem to be necessary for tumor formation. Because eBAT can eliminate these same cells, the combination of the test to establish the risk of a dog to develop cancer, and eBAT to eliminate these critical cells, can find cancers and potentially kill them before they form.

The Gumbrecht’s say they aren’t alone in their assessment of eBAT’s effect on Magi’s survival. Their local oncologist in Los Angeles agreed. “Even the oncologist here who did checkups and treatments was convinced of the same thing,” Pete said. “Certainly the chemo helped as part of the protocol, but we believe the difference was eBAT.”

It was a month into the nationwide COVID lockdown when it became clear Magi was ready to move on, four-and-a-half years after her hemangiosarcoma diagnosis. During the spring of 2020, ultrasounds and x-rays revealed tumors, and it was suspected but never confirmed that cancer had returned. Despite the lockdown, Tina, Pete, and Magi went to the beach and broke a few rules in the interest of giving Magi back just some of the joy that she had given her parents.

They called a service to come to their home to put Magi to sleep. When a woman arrived at the door, Magi, who had been weak and immobile, jumped up, grabbed a flip-flop, and greeted her visitor with her tail wagging.

“I thought it was so sweet that, in a way, Magi’s last experience was a new friend that she made,” Pete said.

Magi’s extra time was a gift—for her, for her canine, human, and Facebook friends, arguably for science, and for the Gumbrechts.

Said Pete: “I think we have to remember the perspective sometimes is reversed. We were doing all these things for Magi, but we were getting all of these things back. All of these bucket-list things we were doing for Magi were really amazing experiences … but she was giving us more than we were giving her the whole way.”

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