Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Will Eward fights cancer – for canines and humans

CorrespondentOctober 11, 2013 

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Tar Heel of the Week, Dr. Will Eward, 39, of Durham, in a veterinary surgical suite at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in Cary. Dr. Eward is a veterinarian as well as a surgeon at Duke Medical Center whose cancer research in his canine patients is leading to new treatments for cancers in humans.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Dr. William Curtis Eward

    Born: May 2, 1974, in Winter Park, Fla.

    Residence: Durham

    Career: Assistant professor in orthopedic oncology, Duke Cancer Institute; veterinarian, Veterinary Specialty Hospital of the Carolinas.

    Awards: John M. Harrelson Chief Resident Teaching Award, Duke University Medical Center, 2012; Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine Young Achiever Award, 2010; Gold Humanism Honor Society, University of Vermont College of Medicine, 2004.

    Education: B.S., biology and classics, Duke University; D.V.M., Auburn University; M.D., University of Vermont

    Family: Wife, Cindy; children: Aly, 10, Luke, 8, and Ellery, 6

    Hobbies: Running, swimming, triathlons

    Fun fact: Eward delivered his third child, Ellery, when he was an intern at Duke Hospital. He was doing a rotation in the neurosurgery ward when his wife showed up in labor at 2:30 a.m. He went down to meet her and ended up helping to deliver the baby on a gurney in the hallway. Less than half an hour later, he returned to his rounds. “I was more nervous for that than for any surgery I had ever performed,” he says.

— Will Eward had considered being both a veterinarian and a doctor from the time he was quite young, in much the way one might aspire to be both a firefighter and an astronaut.

But it wasn’t until he was in vet school and landed a research job dissecting mice that had ridden on the space shuttle that he started to see real-life potential in a dual career.

The project at Kennedy Space Center brought him to Yale University, where he answered bafflingly simple questions about veterinary practices from the seasoned doctors and researchers who were conducting the study.

It occurred to him that human medicine was missing opportunities to learn from the animal world.

“I started thinking, ‘Wow, there are a lot of complex problems out there, and they’re only looking at one species to solve them,’” says Eward. “By opening your mind to see what’s happening in veterinary medicine, you know so much more.”

Eward, 39, has since focused much of his career on studying bone cancer in dogs, which suffer from the disease at much higher rates than humans, in an effort to beat the disease in both animals and humans.

He spends three days a week on what he often refers to as “the human side,” seeing patients with bone and muscle cancer at Duke University Medical Center. The other two days, he treats dogs and cats at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital of the Carolinas; some of them are also his research subjects.

One recent study demonstrated an imaging technique that detected cancer in dogs more accurately. The technique could allow doctors to perform more precise surgery to remove human tumors. It is now widely used at veterinary schools and is being tested for use in humans with bone and other cancers.

Other research projects focus on isolating elements of this complex cancer that are common to both human and dogs, with an eye toward creating targeted treatments.

Ben Alman, chairman of orthopedic surgery at Duke’s School of Medicine, says Eward’s research will likely improve the way humans with bone cancers are treated within the next decade.

“In looking at different species, he has a really unique opportunity to make a major breakthrough in how we manage these tumors,” says Alman, who also worked with Eward when he did a fellowship at the University of Toronto. “He’s come up with a novel, unique and smart way to look at the disease.”

Treating animals and humans

Eward grew up in a small town in Florida, where his interest in animals started young.

“I was one of those kids that was always trying to rescue the injured baby bird and catching every snake in the yard,” he says.

While he was already considering a career treating both humans and animals, medicine was never his sole interest.

He studied the classics along with biology as a Duke University undergrad – citing a love of Latin and literature. He was also a varsity swimmer, an active participant in student government, and a tutor and mentor to public school students.

By the time he went on to veterinary school at Auburn University, his plans of also earning an M.D. seemed far-fetched; he had settled on starting a small-town veterinary practice.

His summer project at Kennedy Space Center was short but transformative. The study eventually showed that the nervous systems of newborn mice develop normally without the influence of gravity.

When Eward joined, the Yale researchers needed someone who was available on short notice to dissect the mice when they arrived back to earth. Eward even got security clearance to see the shuttle land up close.

This study earned him his first published research paper. He became hooked on the idea of research, and on the potential of melding veterinary and human medicine.

Yet his work has remained varied. His research has tackled topics from his cancer studies to training methods for neck surgeries to attitudes toward physician-assisted suicide among Vermont doctors.

In 2008, he also traveled to Uganda on a medical mission trip, and he helped rescue pets after Hurricane Katrina as well.

His wife, Cindy, a fellow veterinarian at Veterinary Specialty Hospitals, attributes her husband’s success to his constant movement from one project to the next.

“He’s always thinking of something else to do” she says. “He never stops.”

The couple and their three children recently moved to a 14-acre homestead in northern Durham County, which they share with three dogs, a python, two horses and seven chickens.

New advances in imaging

Eward has been at Duke since 2006, when he returned to do his medical residency. He envisioned himself begging to continue working with animals if he was hired as a professor.

Instead, his research agenda meshed well with a popular movement called “one medicine” that espouses using information from outside traditional medicine in the fight against diseases such as cancer. He found that Duke was eager to have him continue studying animals, as well as treating patients and training medical students.

There are key differences between the fields. His work in humans, for instance, is focused on implants of bones or muscles that were removed due to cancer; such replacements aren’t done in pets.

But some differences make studying dogs particularly useful. For one thing, using dogs that are already sick precludes the need to purposely infect animals in order to study diseases that often respond differently in a lab setting.

And because dogs don’t live as long, it is easier to track the progression of the disease throughout their lifetimes.

His work on dogs with the imaging device – which uses florescent light to expose cancer cells so that surgeons can remove all of the cancerous cells and not others – helped the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers he’s working with get approval to do a trial in humans.

In all, his philosophy is to focus on the disease itself rather than the species.

“Instead of saying, ‘Here’s this human with a tumor,’ we’re trying to start by saying ‘Here’s this type of cancer,’” he says. “‘How is it the same in a dog as it is in a human? Those things that make it the same are probably what we should focus on.’”

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