Michael Henson

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PEOPLE: THE HEART OF THE CVM

Michael Henson

Dr. Michael Henson’s veterinary career began inauspiciously enough in suburban Chicago when, as a 14-year-old, he worked cleaning cages at a local vet’s office.

Although he wasn’t old enough to be legally employed, he quickly realized this was a great profession, combining his love of animals and science. Today he cares for animals, teaches, and serves on—and leads—research teams studying cancer.

“I like critters, I like teaching, I like solving problems, and I like to get dirty,” he says with a smile. “It’s a cool field. There are not a lot of jobs where you can use your hands, crawl around with animals, get messy, and exercise your brain. It’s a physical and intellectual challenge.”

Mike Henson with an oncology patient

After high school, Henson embarked on his veterinary degree path at the University of Illinois, studying animal science as an undergraduate and earning his DVM degree in 1988. He then completed an internship at the University of Georgia, where he met his wife, fellow faculty member Dr. Julie Churchill. After several years in practice, he completed residencies in internal medicine and oncology and earned a PhD at the University of Minnesota.

Henson is a specialist in oncology, the study and treatment of cancer. He provides care for animals with cancer, teaches in all four years of the veterinary curriculum, conducts cancer research, and serves as section chief of the Veterinary Medical Center’s Oncology Service and associate medical director for the Veterinary Medical Center.

Over 25 years at the University, the majority of Henson’s time and effort has been spent growing and sustaining a robust clinical service focused on providing excellent care and improving the quality of life for animals with cancer. The clinical team provides service to community veterinarians and trains students. Henson loves teaching and is well-known for his emphasis on core clinical skills such as physical examination techniques and compassionate communication.

Henson’s research focuses on clinical trials in animals with naturally occurring cancer, evaluating novel therapies such as immunotherapy, oncolytic virus treatments, and new medications.

As a clinical oncologist, he often serves as an intermediary, a “translational scientist” who takes cancer therapy that has been developed in the laboratory and determines if it can be safely used in animals to improve prognosis and quality of life.

“What we learn can help those patients and add to the knowledge in the drug-development pathway that could be applicable someday to helping people,” he says.

As with human trials, the owners of animals sign an “informed consent” document that confirms they understand the various steps involved in the research and the possible benefits and risks. If families decide they want their pet to participate in a trial, they can later pull them out any time they wish, Henson says.

Mike Henson examines a cat

“Most people want to help science and want the latest treatment for their beloved pets,” he says. “Most novel therapies are not available outside of a trial, and when they are, the costs are prohibitive for most owners. Participation in trials has the potential to help the pet, the family, future pets, and maybe humans down the road.”  

Money is set aside in all research projects to help manage adverse side effects, if any occur.

“I will not participate in or run any project that does not have a fund available for management of adverse effects, nor will anyone else in our department,” Henson says. “Quality of life is our most important goal.”

The College of Veterinary Medicine is a national leader in research.

“People from all over the country come to the U to participate in our clinical trials,” he says.  Recent work coordinated by the oncology team includes evaluation of a novel biological therapy called eBAT for hemangiosarcoma in dogs, led by Dr. Antonella Borgatti, associate professor. Moreover, there are two trials evaluating oncolytic viral therapy in dogs with osteosarcoma and other solid tumors led by Henson and Dr. Jaime Modiano, Perlman Professor of Oncology and Comparative Medicine.

Inspiration comes from fellow faculty members, students, and the “ardent animal lovers” who have a great passion and knowledge about their pets, Henson says. He and his wife, fellow faculty member Dr. Julie Churchill, easily confess to being animal lovers themselves, with a complement of five dogs in a family that includes three children, ages 15 to 21.

When not on campus, Henson spends as much time with family as possible and is very active.

“I love hiking, climbing, biking, and doing flips on our trampoline,” he says. “When I’m not at the college I just want to be outside, in nature.”