Ilektra Athanasiadi finds rewards in using radiation therapy to treat pets with cancer

In its four years of operation, the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center has treated thousands of cats and dogs and studied advancements in veterinary cancer treatment that could benefit humans.

Ilektra Athanasiadi. Illustration by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.

Radiation oncologist Ilektra Athanasiadi has been there from the start.

“There was nothing here. I was coming to their meetings with the construction company,” said Athanasiadi, assistant professor of radiation oncology. 

Since 2019, Athanasiadi has been a core part of the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center, one of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s three hospitals. She uses radiation therapy to treat pets with cancer. 

“Some people say [this job] is sad, but I think it's really, really rewarding. We give hope to the owners, even if it's for a short time. Seeing them being happy that we can give them more time with their pets is amazing. Most of the cases with radiation, we can give them a good quality of life for the time they have left, so that's very important,” she said. 

Demand has been growing for radiation oncology services. The Animal Cancer Care and Research Center is one of only two facilities in the commonwealth to offer radiation oncology, and Athanasiadi is one of only 140 veterinary radiation oncologists in the entire country. Combine that with the center’s reputation for excellent care, and Athanasiadi keeps a busy schedule, with people traveling from hours away to get treatment for their pets.  

Translational research and collaboration

Athanasiadi juggles the demands of clinical practice with research. Both of elements of her role involve collaboration — she is constantly collaborating with the medical and surgical oncologists at the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center and collaborating on research.

She works with Robert Gourdie, professor and director of the Center for Vascular and Heart Research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. Gourdie’s lab has developed a drug designed to heal the heart muscle after a heart attack, and the drug has been found to have radioprotective effects. 

Technology can get quite precise with radiation, but radiation treatment still damages healthy tissue around the cancer. Drugs like this one could mitigate that damage. Right now, there is only one Food and Drug Adminstration-approved drug that can be used for head and neck cancers in humans, but this team aims to change that.

A collaboration is also in the early stages with the pulmonology department at Johns Hopkins University as Athanasiadi and the Johns Hopkins team seek to develop a new method for delivering radioisotopes to the lungs.  
Athanasiadi is also currently conducting a study on dogs with oral tumors, testing a device developed by Focal Medical that delivers chemotherapy drugs directly to the tumor. This system has been used for other cancers, but it has the potential to be particularly useful for oral tumors, some of which can be impossible to remove surgically.  

The road to radiation oncology

As a child growing up in Greece, Athanasiadi always knew she would be a veterinarian like her mother. 

“For as long as I can remember, I was helping with her practice and I was always saying that I wanted to be a veterinarian,” said Athanasiadi. 

She knew she wanted to specialize, she just didn’t know what field to specialize in. However, before she entered veterinary school, she lost her grandmother from breast cancer. 

After that loss, she found herself drawn to any topic that had to do with cancer in school — the first nudge toward a career in oncology. 

After completing veterinary school at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, Athanasiadi worked at a referral clinic in Athens for two years. During this time, she gained insight into what fields of veterinary medicine were best for her.  

“I realized that my passion was more within internal medicine and oncology and not so much surgery,” she said. 

Armed with this knowledge, she entered a rotating internship at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hannover, Germany. There, she spent as much time as she could with the oncology service. This was her first real opportunity to learn about radiation oncology, and she was blown away by its potential. 

After her internship, she moved to Switzerland to work as a clinician at the University of Zurich's small animal clinic in the division of radiation oncology and then at the Animal Oncology and Imaging Center in the town of Zug.

She earned an additional veterinary degree at the University of Zurich, where her supervisors were radiation and medical oncologists board-certified in the United States. It was Athanasiadi’s ambition to enter a residency program in the United States, but that was far easier said than done, particularly in a field like radiation oncology where there are few residency programs. 

Finally, in 2016, she was accepted to a radiation oncology residency at Purdue University. Following her dream meant she had to say goodbye to the career and the community she had built for years in Switzerland. 

“But it was now or never — it took me about 10 years to get into a residency in the United States,” said Athanasiadi. 

After her residency at Purdue University, she joined the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine faculty, where she’s been treating animals and conducting research ever since. 

Through her work as a radiation oncologist, Athanasiadi is changing the lives of pets and pet owners across Virginia and beyond.

Source: VirginiaTech