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Whatever it takes

  • Alfie on a private jet

    Whatever it takes

    Couple crosses an ocean of obstacles to seek treatment at CVM for dog’s aggressive brain tumor

Editor's note: Check out this 60 Minutes segment featuring our own Dr. Liz Pluhar and the Canine Brain Cancer Clinical Trial Program. And support Dr. Pluhar’s work with a gift:

It came out of nowhere. One moment, Alfie, a 3-year-old Boston Terrier, slept peacefully on the couch. The next moment, the small dog began shaking uncontrollably and sent his owners, Anthony Coyne and Renée Logsdon, into a panic.

Logsdon recognized the signs of a seizure and knew Alfie would need medical attention. One veterinary appointment soon turned into several before they made an emergency visit to the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals at the Royal Veterinary College in London.

An MRI scan of Alfie's tumor
An MRI scan of Alfie's tumor

There, an MRI scan revealed a brain tumor was behind Alfie’s sudden onset of seizures. The mass was large and in a perilous location. The medical staff considered the tumor inoperable and recommended palliative care for the time Alfie had left, which would likely be only a month or two at best. 

It's like that with anyone that you love. If you can do something, you try your best to do whatever you can to help them.

Renée Logsdon

“I think the hardest part was we couldn't do anything for him,” Logsdon says. “It's like that with anyone that you love. If you can do something, you try your best to do whatever you can to help them.”

Coyne and Logsdon grieved the news for days. Then, they got to work. The pair began researching treatment options for Alfie. As it turns out, the best people to help Alfie were located at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM)—a 4,000-mile journey from London.

Alfie resting in his London home. 

The University is home to the Canine Brain Tumor Clinical Trials Program. The program offers cutting-edge therapy for dogs to preserve their quality of life and improve their long-term survival rates. The program is led by Liz Pluhar, DVM, PhD, DACVS, professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, who coordinates collaborations between medical researchers and veterinarians to diagnose and treat brain tumors in dogs with breakthrough therapies.

Pluhar was joined on Alfie’s case by Susan Arnold, DVM, DACVIM, a member of the canine brain tumor clinical trials program and assistant professor of neurology. Given the aggressive nature of brain tumors, it was imperative to treat Alfie as quickly as possible.

“Unfortunately, if left untreated, Alfie’s condition would have become serious over the coming weeks to months,” Arnold says. 

A long road to help

Alfie, Anthony, and Renée
Alfie, Anthony, and Renée arrive in Minnesota.

Getting Alfie to Minnesota was easier said than done for Coyne and Logsdon. They had planned to move to Florida in late summer 2021 but decided to start their journey a few months early to take Alfie to Minnesota in February for treatment. When purchasing their Florida home in December 2020, one of their only requirements was that it had a yard for Alfie.

“Alfie didn't have a tumor when we got this place,” Coyne says. “And then it suddenly dawned on us, we're going to go live in it. We bought it for the garden for Alfie, and Alfie was not going to see the garden. It was heartbreaking.”

They resolved to get Alfie to Minnesota no matter what. Taking an international trip in the midst of a global pandemic is no easy task to start, but add a live animal to the mix, and the paperwork piles up. Travel restrictions across countries and forms of transportation threatened to stop their journey cold time and time again.

“It was a roller coaster,” Coyne said. “You go from the relief and the high that there's hope with someone telling you, ‘I can fix this for you, or I might be able to fix this for you. You’ve got a good chance as long as you can get to me.’ And then to be told, ‘No, you can't go.’”

Finally, they caught a break. The owner of a private jet company—and a fellow dog lover—offered to fly them to the U.S. at a heavy discount. He happened to have an empty private jet that was heading to New York City to pick up its owner. Despite the hurdles—and there were many more that Coyne detailed in a blog about their journey—the trio arrived at the University after a 20-hour drive from New York City. Once on the CVM campus, Alfie received a medical evaluation and enrolled in the trial.

Alfie at the Lewis Small Animal Hospital

A week after his February evaluation, Alfie went into surgery. Pluhar and the care team performed a craniotomy, a procedure that involved cutting into Alfie’s skull and removing as much of the tumor as they safely could from his brain. From start to finish, the surgery took an hour and a half, a testament to the techniques Pluhar has honed over the years.

When it came to recovery, Alfie showed the major surgery hadn’t put a damper on his spirit.

“He was up and moving around just hours after his brain surgery. He spent the night in our ICU and was ready to be discharged the next morning,” Arnold says. “When we discharged him to his owners, he was happily rolling around in the grass, enjoying the sunshine. If it wasn’t for the sutured-up incision, you would not have known that Alfie had just had brain surgery.” 

A living ‘miracle’ 

Pluhar, Arnold and Alfie
Liz Pluhar, Susan Arnold, and Alfie the morning after
Alfie's surgery.

In the months since his surgery, Alfie has continued to show improvement. He is undergoing immunotherapy and has his first follow-up MRI scheduled in July. In the meantime, Alfie and Logsdon are currently staying with her parents near Knoxville, Tenn., and he is known around the neighborhood as the “miracle dog.” Alfie’s fan club spans the globe as his initial care team in London also loves hearing updates about his progress.

What the future holds for Alfie remains unknown. His tumor is a high-grade glioma, a type that is known for its rapid regrowth. The surgery successfully removed 97 percent of the tumor, which had grown into a 2.5 cubic-centimeter mass. The immunotherapy will continue to target the remaining bit of the tumor. Though much is still uncertain, Coyne and Logsdon say they are grateful for the extra time the care team at the College of Veterinary Medicine has given them with Alfie.

Dr. Pluhar and Dr. Arnold have done wonders for our little one. We’re incredibly thankful and grateful for them and everyone on Alfie’s care team. He wouldn’t be here without them.

Renée Logsdon

“Dr. Pluhar and Dr. Arnold have done wonders for our little one,” Logsdon says. “We’re incredibly thankful and grateful for them and everyone on Alfie’s care team. He wouldn’t be here without them.”

It also brings Coyne and Logsdon comfort to know Alfie’s case will help the Canine Brain Tumor Clinical Trials Program continue to work toward its goal of designing targeted treatments for dogs—and people, too. The first phase of human clinical trials for glioma at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center, based on Pluhar’s research, began in early 2021.   

“Alfie is the little creature that we love,” Coyne says. “We were just trying to save him, but the fact that this does contribute to something, which hopefully one day will help people, is a really great thing.” 

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