Legacy for $3 million: Colorado State cancer prof earns funding to save limbs and lives

Note to Reporters: Broadcast-quality video, high-resolution photos and more information are available at http://col.st/jgcnS.

A Colorado State University veterinarian who is dedicating her career to saving the limbs and lives of trauma victims and cancer patients becomes the beneficiary on Monday of an endowment that supports her research – and continues the university’s distinctive legacy of limb-sparing cancer discoveries.

Dr. Nicole Ehrhart will be appointed to the Ross M. Wilkins, M.D. Limb Preservation University Chair in Musculoskeletal Biology and Oncology. Academic chairs represent endowments established by donors; investment income supports the work of outstanding scholars in their quests for new knowledge in critical fields.

Ehrhart is the first woman at CSU appointed to a University Chair, endowed with $3 million in donations. She is one of only 14 CSU faculty members holding academic chairs endowed at that level.

“This is a tremendous tribute to Dr. Ehrhart’s outstanding leadership as a scientist and scholar,” CSU President Tony Frank said. “That she is the first woman to occupy an endowed University Chair is a significant – if long overdue – milestone for our institution. CSU has been home to exceptional, accomplished women faculty since its founding in 1870, and Dr. Ehrhart carries on that tradition with her groundbreaking work in human and animal health. We are grateful for this chance to celebrate and support her work at the highest levels.”

The chair is named for Dr. Ross Wilkins, a Denver orthopedic surgeon. He has collaborated closely with Dr. Stephen Withrow, a veterinarian, University Distinguished Professor and founder of CSU’s Flint Animal Cancer Center.

The two cancer specialists – one in human medicine, one in animal medicine – joined efforts beginning in the 1980s and together developed limb-sparing techniques that have become a standard of care for pets and people with bone cancer. The procedures established by Wilkins and Withrow have dramatically improved treatment and survival for patients with osteosarcoma – especially children, who are most often affected.

The doctor and the veterinarian, seeing firsthand the value of their collaboration, spearheaded fundraising for the chair endowment to ensure that future medical professionals will continue cooperative discoveries to save limbs and lives in cases of trauma and cancer.

“It’s a great honor to hand it off to you,” Withrow told Ehrhart, a protégé, when they recently conferred in her lab.

At Colorado State’s Flint Animal Cancer Center, Ehrhart treats animal patients and teaches veterinary students and residents. She also studies ways to prevent limb loss and to regenerate bones and muscle in people and animals whose extremities are threatened by cancer, infection or trauma.

Ehrhart uses surgical and bone-grafting techniques, as well as biological products and stem-cell therapies. She has been actively involved in limb preservation research, regenerative medicine, tissue engineering and sarcoma research for nearly 20 years.

Ehrhart’s Laboratory of Comparative Musculoskeletal Oncology and Traumatology epitomizes “translational medicine,” in which findings from research into animal disease are applied to human medicine.

“Cancer is cancer. It doesn’t care what species you are,” said Dr. Rod Page, who holds the Stephen J. Withrow Presidential Chair in Oncology and is director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center. “This chair will allow Dr. Ehrhart, and others who come after her in perpetuity, to pursue research that will help save human and animal lives.”

Ehrhart described her appointment to the chair as the pinnacle of her career. “I’m a veterinarian and I love animals, but I have a great sense of excitement about helping people, too. The greatest thing for me is the opportunity to do both,” she said.

Ehrhart came to the work while training with Withrow in veterinary surgical oncology. She accompanied him on an annual volunteer trip to Colorado’s Sky High Hope Camp for children with cancer.

“I went to cancer camp and met kids fresh out of amputations. At the same time, I was learning about limb-salvage surgery with Dr. Withrow. I kept wondering why we could save legs in dogs, and we were amputating legs in kids,” she recalled.

Her circle of mentors expanded to include Wilkins, and Ehrhart was soon pursuing new ways to save limbs and lives.

Fast-forward two decades: She is a professor of surgical oncology, with 62 peer-reviewed publications. She teaches and sees patients at the Flint Animal Cancer Center. She runs the Laboratory of Comparative Musculoskeletal Oncology and Traumatology. She holds joint faculty positions in the CSU School of Biomedical Engineering and the Cell and Molecular Biology program. She also collaborates at the University of Colorado Cancer Center and the CU Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine.

In fall 2014, she was inducted into the Musculoskeletal Tumor Society, just the second veterinarian to earn the recognition – after Withrow. She also joins Withrow as a founding fellow in surgical oncology within the American College of Veterinary Surgeons. And she serves on the board of directors for the Limb Preservation Foundation, which Withrow, Wilkins and others founded.

With her passion and experience, Ehrhart was a natural fit for carrying the Wilkins-Withrow legacy in limb preservation.

“I was in tears when I found out Nicole got the chair,” Wilkins said.