Virginia Tech studies regarding frankincense.
On October 18, 2005, we lost a good friend and great horse, when "Chili" Witter succumbed to complications from malignant melanoma. I hope this brief remembrance will help me work through the grief of his loss that I share with his owners Karen and Meagan.
Chili (aptly named after the character of Chili Palmer in the film "Get Shorty") came to Meagan as a 5-year old. Meagan was determined to make horses her life, and her parents, deciding this was a wonderful thing to foster, arranged an introduction to an amazing starter horse that Meagan described as "a huge dark gray, dappled, young and spunky gelding". After watching him move, deciding he could jump over the Empire State Building, and taking him for a ride in the rain, Meagan realized Chili absolutely needed to come home - right away, that day, period.
A summer of hard work and training on Meagan's part, coupled with Chili's heart and natural abilities, had the pair bringing home the ribbons within a few months. Of course, when Meagan had to go back to college, there was no question who her 'roommate' was going to be! Off horse and owner went to Massachusetts, each with their own wardrobe and trunk. Days and nights were equally divided between studies, riding, and spoiling Chili rotten (just kidding - you can never spoil a horse rotten). Soon, Chili's ability to leap tall buildings and fallen logs in the woods - in a single bound - were a regular occurrence.
Meagan and her Mom, Karen, decided as college was drawing to a close, that Chili should spend more time with Karen. Now, this, on the surface was very practical, since Meagan was moving out west. However, and you didn't hear it from me, I suspect Karen had also fallen in love with Chili and was more than happy to have him around. Karen and Chili soon were totally bonded, and doing fantastic in all their shows. Other riders and trainers like Lisa and Emily fell under the 'Chili Spell' when Karen asked them to work him.
In March, 2005, when Chili was 11 years old, Karen contacted me because Chili had multicentric malignant melanoma (see the article on "Malignant Melanoma in Horses" on this website) that was interfering with moving. Chili already had a parotid melanoma resected, but there were additional growths under the tail, ear and throat latch. Karen heard about our experimental studies with frankincense oil (yes, the very same gift brought by the Wise Men at the birth of Jesus, according to The Bible), and wondered if Chili might help us to figure out whether the oil was going to be a useful therapy for cancer.
The frankincense oil program was started and directed by a group of exceptionally talented scientists and oncologists (Carrie Shaw, Ed Shaw, Costas Koumenis, Sue Hess, Mike Robbins) at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest University. Carrie (a high school student we refer to as "WunderKid"), Sue, and Costas had shown that a number of botanical oils (frankincense, for example, is a distillate of a number of fermented and refined plants) had anti-tumor activity when tested against tumor cell lines in tissue culture. They were particularly interested in activity against brain tumor cells (which can be incurable in people) and other related tumor cells like melanoma. They asked us, as part of our ongoing research collaboration in comparative and translational oncology, if there was a way to test frankincense oil in our animal patients. We collectively decided to try to use the oil against malignant, multicentric melanoma in horses.
Chili arrived at Virginia Tech in mid-August and therapy (daily doses by injection into selected tumors) was started. The design of the study (a Phase I clinical trial) was to determine dose and potential toxic effects of frankincense oil. As controls for the study, normal skin and another tumor were also treated, either with frankincense oil or with sesame oil, which has no known effect against tumors.
Chili was the ideal patient. Stoic, responsive, and inspiring. I visited him several times a day, but our special time was carrot and peppermint time every day at 5 PM. He let me know how his day had gone, what he thought of the Equine Team (Drs. Tan, Maxwell, Montero, Scarratt and Crisman) (he liked them all!) and all the veterinary students who assisted with his treatment, fussed over him and encouraged him (he gave them Gold Stars!).
Within a week, the injected tumor was showing signs of lysis (breakdown) and this continued during treatment. We saw few signs of local toxicity and this was pretty encouraging. These results indicated we should definitely keep pursuing development of this therapy.
Karen and I talked, by phone, every couple of days and she made the drive from NJ regularly to be with Chili. One visit brought his favorite apples, another yielded a big bucket of "Stud Muffins" treats. She walked him, groomed him, and listened to his assessment of how we were doing. And she persevered and continued to have faith in us. We knew we were dealing with very bad tumors - but Karen kept encouraging us to keep working - because Chili might be the first horse to help us eventually control and cure melanoma.
After a course of injection therapy and another of topical therapy, we still had to decide how to best manage a large parotid melanoma (that had not been treated). We knew this mass would continue to grow, was not in a place we could inject, and would eventually interfere with moving and feeding. Dr. Doug Berry and his surgical team (Drs. Keys and Eddy) decided they would try to remove as much of the tumor as they could. We all knew this would be very difficult surgery for Chili, Karen, the surgical and medical teams, and for me.
The day of surgery was a hard day. After surgery, Chili had a very stormy recovery and it was soon clear we could not ask our friend Chili for any more sacrifices. It broke my heart to put him down, but we knew it was the best decision. Everyone felt terrible - but the greatest sadness was borne by Karen.
Days later we would learn that Chili, as stoic and determined as he was, had many more melanomas than we thought - including one on his heart that was the likely cause of the stormy recovery and demise. We didn't know - and Chili couldn't tell us.
I think there are lessons for all of us here. Chili, Karen, and Meagan had the courage to be the first to help us try to develop a new therapy for a devastating form of cancer that routinely kills horses and people. Their faith in us inspires us every day, and in every way, to study, to learn, to fight with relentless determination, and not accept defeat.
Let's make 2006 "The Year of Chili" - the year we take the next steps to eliminating cancer in animals and in people.
Chili, Karen, Meagan - thank you.
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