The patient is under anesthesia, lying on her side in a surgical room with bright overhead lights. The nurse slips a needle into the vein so the chemicals can attack the nearly undetectable cancerous cells of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Another nurse monitors the vital signs while a third person gently strokes the patient’s back. In the corner, white-coated doctors gather, discussing her condition.
It’s a chemotherapy session — with a difference. The medical office is actually an animal clinic. The doctors include a veterinarian. And the patient is an 8-year-old orangutan — among the species closest in genetic make-up to humans — and one of the beloved stars of Jungle Island.
Over the last three months, the treatment for her cancer, an aggressive form, has been handled by a team that includes Jungle Island’s veterinarian, Dr. Jason Chatfield, and doctors and nurses from the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center/University of Miami and UM’s Miller School of Medicine. Though it is not uncommon to use chemotherapy on animals, Peanut is the first documented orangutan to be treated with this particular chemo-immunotherapy regimen typically used to treat human lymphoma cases.
“The DNA of an orangutan is remarkably similar to that of humans,” said Dr. Joseph Rosenblatt, chief of the Hematology/Oncology Division at Sylvester, who is advising on the case. “They are human-like in many ways, so it makes sense for us to try to adopt as close a human approach as possible.”
Will it work? It’s hard to know. Other cancer treatments such as radiation have been used on orangutans or gorillas only a handful of times before — but doctors hope the cancer will be eradicated with the three treatments she has had so far. The plan was to give Peanut up to six treatments but last week, the team decided to stop because of the stress of undergoing multiple immobilizations and because the disease is microscopic, likely an early stage.
Now they wait, watching her progress and looking for signs of a relapse. Long-term — eight months to a year — they will monitor her through diagnostic imaging including CT scan, radiology and ultrasounds.
“Peanut has handled the process with remarkable strength and fortitude. We have learned a great deal in the process and endeavored to provide Peanut with state-of-the-art care and the best possible chance at long-term survival,” Chatfield said. “We remain hopeful that the chemotherapy was able to remove any lingering neoplastic cells.”
Peanut, one of six orangutans at Jungle Island, has become a big attraction, in part because she uses sign language and an iPad to communicate. She lives at the Watson Island tourist attraction with her fraternal twin sister, Pumpkin.
“Peanut has the sweetest personality,’’ said one of her caretakers, Linda Jacobs, who has helped to raise the orangutan. “Everybody who knows her, loves her.’’
In the fight of her life, Peanut faced months of anesthesia and a five-drug regimen administered two to three hours per session at a Miami animal clinic. She had her third treatment on Oct. 10. After the diagnosis about four months ago, Jacobs created a recovery space for Peanut in her enclosure, padding it with soft comforters and blankets, including the orangutan’s favorite pink satin one. Peanut helped, arranging the covers and pillows into a bed. Once it was set up, she lay down to rest, right next to Jacobs. And they both fell asleep.