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TURNING THE TABLES : Research on Humans at UC Irvine Has Led to Laser Surgery on Animals

January 30, 1988|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young writes regularly for Orange County Life.

When cardiac surgeon John Eugene catches his first glimpse of the heart patient, he starts to giggle.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh," he says to another doctor. "But these guys always make me laugh."

The patient is an 8-year-old English bulldog with enormous eyes and flaps of furry skin hanging from his jowls. His name is Clouseau, as in inspector, and he has the kind of face that begs to be loved. It is hard to stifle a chuckle.

The doctors and assistants are gathered in a small operating room at UC Irvine's Beckman Laser Institute to save the dog's life. But if it weren't for procedures performed on humans at the institute, Clouseau wouldn't stand a chance.

At a time when some animal rights activists are protesting what they consider inhumane treatment of laboratory animals, the Laser Institute has come up with a new twist: it has developed laser techniques on humans and applied them to animals.

If the institute and the doctors were charging for their services, the operation would cost more than $2,000. But as it is, the facility and the doctors are donating their time not only to spare Clouseau's life, but to gain experience in laser medical techniques.

"We experiment with people first, then we do (the procedures) on animals," says Michael Berns, Ph.D, head of the institute. "Turns out local vets got wind of our facilities and operating room for research, and asked, 'Can we bring our dogs and cats over with cancer and use your fancy lasers to cure animals?' "

Berns says the facility has spread the word to veterinarians that laser treatments will be offered to animals one or two days a month at little or no cost.

The 30,000-square-foot institute--founded in 1982 by Berns and Orange County industrialist Arnold O. Beckman--is the world's only laser treatment and research center. The lasers--light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation--are piped via fiber optics throughout the building, to be tapped into whenever needed. Opened in June, 1986, the center employs a staff of 40 and houses some 40 different lasers.

"It's been a teaching, research and patient treatment center," Berns says. "Now we're opening it up to four-legged patients."

It's not just to help the animal kingdom that the institute is offering its services. Humans, after all, still come first at Beckman as they do elsewhere. The principal motivation behind offering the facility to vets is ultimately to help people. Because veterinary work yields nearly as much information in laser use as human procedures, the experience gained from the animal operations will be applied to people. And, as Berns points out, there are plenty of folks in Orange County who don't flinch at the notion of seeking surgery for their pets.

Berns also talks of the "town and gown" separation that often exists in university communities. He hopes the institute and its services can help bridge the gap.

"It's a unique service," he says. "It gives us experience, it helps the animals. And it's good PR for the institute."

Clouseau's cancerous tumor is pressing against his trachea, causing him pain and hampering his breathing. Eugene, who has performed laser heart surgery on humans for five years but has yet to treat a dog, hopes to reduce or remove the tumor with the infrared beam of a YAG (yttrium-aluminum garnet, the elements that make up the active material) laser. Conventional surgery would cause too much bleeding.

"This is a very rare treatment and a rare tumor," Eugene says. "We are the only ones to do it, that I've ever heard of. Not many other places are set up for this."

As Clouseau perches on the operating table, his baleful pink and brown eyes follow the doctors as they huddle in conference. Assistants stack equipment in corners, on shelves and atop tables, and the room starts to shrink. Overhead, a surgical light hangs like spider legs, illuminating the patient.

Clouseau's enormous nose is covered with a mask pumping oxygen and Isoflorane, and soon his legs begin to buckle as he falls asleep. Soundless, he is slumped on the table, looking adorably helpless.

A relatively new and expensive anesthetic gas used almost entirely on humans rather than animals, Isoflorane was chosen for Clouseau because it is easier on the heart than some gases. Because the surgeons are working so close to that organ, it was the first choice.

It's 10:15 a.m. A monitor records Clouseau's vital signs and during pauses in the doctors' medical play-by-play, the only sound is Clouseau's thundering heartbeat.

Everybody in the room is asked to wear paper hats and masks.

"Sorry, but this is somebody's kid," says Robert L. Rooks, the Fountain Valley veterinary surgeon who has been treating the bulldog. "We'll go by the books."

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