Dr. Rod Page

Dr. Rod Page is a veterinary oncologist and the director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University.

When Ronald Reagan talked about a "shining city on a hill," Bob Beauprez, the former congressman and Boulder County dairy farmer, thought of his Rocky Mountain home, not the lights on the Potomac River.

Bob wasn't wrong. The nation looks up to Colorado, and our world-class, publicly supported researchers are on the mountaintop.

Consider: Colorado State's Flint Animal Cancer and the University of Colorado Cancer Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus are helping host a three-day workshop at the National Academy of Science, the lab Lincoln founded in Washington, starting Dec. 1.

The aim is to advance the science of using companion animals to warn about exposure to environmental threats, especially those that cause cancer or abnormal aging.

The roster of experts includes Flint director Rod Page and CSU cancer researcher Dr. Elizabeth Ryan, as well as Dr. James DeGregori from the CU Cancer Center and Dr. Anne Thessen, a molecular genetics expert at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, whose pastimes include animal rescues, the other kind.

"If we’re not using our companions that are basically walking every day right beside us, are sleeping in our beds or on our floors right there in our own homes, we're missing an opportunity," Dr. Page said.

"We can use both the information from their body systems, as well as samples as simple as taking a hair sample or a toenail sample, that can tell us a tremendous amount of information that would be helpful for humans, as well."

The speakers and audience will include many of the nation's top cancer researchers from the private sector, the Environmental Protection Agency, affiliates of the National Institutes of Health and plenty more bigwigs in science. 

I wrote a feature in the spring about an amazing Denver dog named Molly who will go down in history for advancing the science of preventing cancer cells from metastasizing, with the help of researchers in Denver and Fort Collins. 

When they put up a statue to Molly in Fort Collins, Dr. Page and the Flint team should be cast in bronze behind her.

Dogs have the power not just to heal us but to redeem us, as well. 

A guy I knew in Alabama, the author and recovering reporter Rick Bragg, released another book a few weeks ago, "The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People," about "a poorly behaved, half-blind stray" who showed up when Rick was sick with cancer, kidney failure and heart trouble., sleeping 11 steps from where he wrote in his mother's basement. Speck gave up his rambling ways and refused to wander away.

Speck chased cars, worried livestock, rolled in manure and begged for table scraps from the back porch. What's on the outside, however, doesn't take the measure of what's on the inside. That's as true with dogs as people.

Rick wrote about leaving Speck with labored breathing and a "violent" cough before he was sedated overnight at the vet's office.

"The next day his office called to tell me to come get my dog. 'What dog?' would have been the prudent response, but I knew they had my address," Rick writes. "He heard my voice and came into the lobby in a rush, almost dancing, the way dogs have done since the beginning of time. He looked fine, and sounded fine, like it never happened. Some dogs, the vet said, just had an amazing ability to reset, to start over the next day. He was that kind of dog. 

"He gave me some medicine to help with the swelling, but I was hoping for a cure. I wanted him to tell me it would never happen again, that my dog was healed, but I had the wrong dog, entirely, for a guarantee. For now I had my terrible dog back, and I would have to settle for that."

I told Dr. Page about Speck and sent him a link to order his own copy. 

The connection between dogs and humans is more than soulful. They are the canaries in the mine shafts of our daily lives.

"It's not a new concept, at all," Dr. Page told me. "It's actually been thought about for 20 or 30 years. I think now that we have such advanced scientific capabilities, we can do DNA sequencing, we can look at different parts of the intestinal microbiome. There are lots of things that we can do now that we couldn't do before."

Dr. Page said dogs respond more quickly than their owners to contamination and cancer development. Research also is advancing on silicone biosensors dogs could wear to more accurately measure exposure to chemicals.

Treatment remains the focus for the nearly 20-year-old Flint Animal Cancer Center. Dr. Page arrived at the clinic 11 years ago with a hope to expand research into how animals could play a role in prevention. 

“I think it's really, really remarkable that the time seems to be right and the venue at the academy is," he said, changing course mid-sentence. "There's no higher presentation or no higher level of support than what you can get done from the National Academy." 

It's not an empty boast to say you can't get higher than the Rockies. Like Beauprez said, Colorado is the shining city on the hill.

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