A specialist oncology hospital for pets

When veterinarian Dr Rod Straw returned to Australia with a plan to open a pet oncology centre, many of his colleagues thought he was nuts.

 6 minutes

Dr Rod Straw uses the knowledge he has attained saving puppies from cancer to save children from cancer. By the time he returned to Australia in 1995, he’d spent about a decade engaged in some of the most exciting work he’d ever done. “The cancer that I cut my teeth on was a very difficult and serious one, particularly for children,” he explains. “They get a disease called osteosarcoma, a primary bone cancer. When I started in the 1980s, fewer than 20 per cent of the kids with this cancer would survive. But through the work that we’ve done in dogs, not only are these kids able to keep their legs, many centres are getting 80 per cent and 90 per cent survival rates in these kids.”

The work Dr Straw was doing in Colorado in the United States treating pet dogs with osteosarcoma involved looking at different treatment modalities and trying to avoid amputation. It could be directly translated to human medicine. He wanted to do this in Australia and started down the path with a group who had plans to build a hospital here. “After I’d been with them for two years and nothing had happened, I could see that it was a bit of a pipedream,” he says. “So I set up my own oncology consultancy and I worked out at the University of Queensland for a while. Although that gave me some infrastructure, it was still far short of what I had in Colorado. So then I said, ‘The only way we’re going to get this done is to do it myself’. So, I built the hospital.”

Finding his calling

So how does a vet who was born and bred in Melbourne end up building one of the country’s leading oncology centres for pets in Brisbane? “When I was doing my residency training, although I liked doing bones and fractures and spinal surgery and things like that, my interest was in the soft tissue cases, where you’re operating on the liver or lung or even heart,” he explains. “I really liked the challenge of that and there wasn’t a lot of people doing that work at the time.”

In the early 1980s he met Dr Stephen Withrow, a veterinary oncologist based at Colorado State University, who invited him to the US to work. “There was never a dull moment,” says Dr Straw. “I learned that animals become perfect models for studying human cancers. If we’re treating the cancer in the animal, we’re not giving the animal cancer. And what we learn from that treatment can go on and help people. That’s where I got interested in the whole field and the comparative nature of it and the way it transitions. It’s translatable research that goes to help people and animals and so, I think it’s just a fantastic field.”

The call of home proved too strong, though, and after a decade he looked at returning to Australia. His specialty was unique enough that he could practise anywhere, but the climate in Brisbane held special appeal. “I’d had the benefit of living in a beautiful climate in the foothills of the Rockies in Colorado, where you get 300 days of sunshine,” he says. “To move back to Melbourne wasn’t so appealing. Much to my family’s chagrin, I chose Brisbane because there’s no better place.”

A centre is born

After the false start with the other medical group, Dr Straw started to work on his dream of a dedicated oncology centre. “What I wanted was a place that I could build from the ground up and build it how I wanted to,” he says. “I was mainly concerned about how the building would work. I didn’t put a lot of thought into marketing and all the proper commercial things that I should have done.”

That’s how he ended up on a plot of land at Albany Creek. “I teamed up with an architect and a guy I used to ride a bike with, and we got talking about where to have it, and then designed the hospital,” he says. “I think it’s stood the test of time. It’s a really nice building. It’s won some architect awards and it is a very functional hospital that now has some great equipment in it, thanks to BOQ Specialist.”

His initial shopping list included modern, well-equipped surgery suites, a fully equipped, intensive care unit, and a fully equipped laboratory for managing critical patients. “We also needed a three-dimensional imaging area that includes CT scan and high-definition computed radiography. Then, in 2007, I added the bunker to put the radiation therapy department in and that allowed us to complete the suite of medical oncology, surgical oncology and radiation oncology. So we’ve got the trilogy.”

BOQ Specialist was with him from the outset. Dr Straw appreciated the fact that the bank understood what he was doing. “Once we met and told them what our needs were, they were a very, ‘Yes, we can’ kind of group. They’ve never made it difficult for us to get the funding that we’ve needed to get this going. I’ve found them very willing to work with us and they know our business.”

“Dr Straw has been a client for over 10 years now,” explains BOQ Specialist's Cameron Chater. “I visited last year, and he showed me around the clinic out there. BOQ Specialist has helped finance a lot of the equipment over the years, as well as some of the extensions to the building and fit-outs. “Some of the technology they had at the practice is amazing and I was intrigued by the bunker where they conduct the radiation therapy. It was fascinating to see what kind of work he was doing and the type of patients he was seeing.”

Dr Straw had told him previously about the strange looks he got when, as a vet, he applied to Queensland Health for a radiology licence. Similarly, says Cameron, “I think a lot of other banks would just turn away from funding such a unique project. We understand the benefits of this type of equipment. Having a focus on the profession enables us to take a deeper dive into the specialty—in this case, oncology—so it makes his application process easier.”

The research continues

With his Brisbane Veterinary Specialist Centre (BVSC) now well established, Dr Straw’s collaborative research work continues. “I’m an adjunct professor at the University of Queensland and I collaborate with a number of different workers at the Translational Research Institute and at the Centre for Advanced Imaging,” he says. “We’re looking at squamous cell carcinoma in the skin for people and we’re looking at prostate cancer, bone tumours and still looking at a really cool way of doing personalised medicine for bone cancer, brain cancer and melanoma.”

His ultimate aim is to pave the way for using checkpoint inhibitors and vaccines to target different genes in cancer cells. “My vision is that when you go and get your cancer checked out, you’ll be able to get a sample of it. They’ll be able to run a gene map on it, figuring out what genes are expressed and how to target them and you’ll get your own personalised medicine for your own cancer. I think that’s a likely thing that will come about in the next 50 years. And I think we can drive a lot of that in what we find out in dogs, because that model’s good.” 


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