Stem cell research often conjures images of political firestorms and futuristic science, yet it’s a field that’s already offering hope for humans and dogs alike. While the ideal of fixing spinal injuries and curing disease may be a long way off, dogs treated with stem cells are enjoying a new lease on life.
Pepper, a 10-year-old standard poodle, is a case in point. Crippled with arthritis in both his hips, Pepper came to James Gaynor, DVM, M.S., medical director of Animal Anesthesia & Pain Management Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., with his owners, who fully expected to have to put their pet to sleep. Conventional treatments hadn’t worked, or had made their dog even sicker. In fact, Pepper’s owners were so certain nothing could be done that they bought another puppy. “At our 60 day recheck, the owner was hugging me and crying out of happiness because, in her words, we gave her back her dog,” Dr. Gaynor says. “The only problem was she now had Pepper and a puppy.”
It wasn’t long ago that dogs like Pepper with arthritis had few options beyond conventional anti-inflammatory treatments — including a variety of non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Metacam, Previcox, Rimadyl and phenylbutazone; steroid medications such as Prednisone; and disease-modifying osteoarthritis drugs (DMOADs) such as Adequan Canine — that sometimes don’t work. Now stem cells are providing an alternative. One California-based company, Vet-Stem, uses stem cells from dogs’ own fat to treat animals in pain.
According to Julie Ryan Johnson, DVM, vice president of sales and marketing, studies have shown that fat is very rich with stem cells, making it an ideal source, and one that is nearly free from controversy, given that most of us don’t mind having a bit of fat removed. “The way we do this is a veterinarian will send us a sample of the dog’s fat,” Dr. Ryan Johnson says. “We isolate the stem cells from that and then send the stem cells back to the veterinarian who injects them back into the dog — for example, into an arthritic hip or elbow.”
Once in the dog, the stem cells communicate with other cells in their environment. While it’s not known exactly how they work, they do decrease the dog’s pain level. “It’s provided the veterinarian with another solution for helping these animals that have pain or difficulty moving,” Dr. Ryan Johnson says. “Most importantly, for the dog and the dog owner, it offers quality of life.”
Richard Vulliet, Ph.D., DVM, professor and director of the Laboratory of Veterinary Cytotherapeutics at UC Davis, says stem cells haven’t cured any diseases yet, but researchers are working hard to change that. “I think that stem cells in general will rewrite the medical textbooks in the next 10 to 20 years,” Dr. Vulliet says. “They will have an impact on human, canine, feline and equine health and will allow us to treat diseases that we can only dream about at this time.”
Tony Kremer, DVM, an Illinois-based veterinary surgeon, says that as research progresses into the origin of diseases, there is hope that stem cell therapy might one day be used to treat diabetes and muscular dystrophy in dogs. “It is hoped that this research can repair or replace diseased organs, severed spinal cords, or brain cells destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease in humans and dogs,” he says.
Dr. Vulliet works with adult bone marrow stem cells to investigate potential cures for diseases that cause misery for many dogs. Your dog may soon be able to get breakthrough treatment in the following areas:
- degenerative myelopathy, a debilitating autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system, particularly of German Shepherds;
- enlarged and weakened hearts in Dobermans;
- lung and metabolic disorders.
“In the past several years, we have developed methods for recovering a therapeutic amount of bone marrow stem cells and safe, relatively non-intrusive methods for administering the cells,” he says. “We are now starting to enroll patients in these areas.” In terms of fat-derived stem cells, progress has been made in several areas of canine health, including muscle inflammation and a disease known as immune-mediated anemia, which is when the immune system destroys red blood cells, leaving your dog weak and listless.
There has been a lot of excitement over umbilical cord blood banks — centers that collect and store the blood from the placenta and umbilical cord after birth as a future source for blood stem cells — but don’t expect that to translate to the dog world anytime soon. “When the puppies are born, you would have to match that umbilical cord to the puppy and that might be a little complicated since there are often multiple puppies in a litter,” Dr. Ryan Johnson says.
Taking the Plunge
If you are going to consider stem cell therapy for your dog, it pays to think ahead. “The fat in the abdomen holds stem cells so my recommendation is if, for example, a female dog is going to be spayed, as long as someone is in there, grab that fat, ship it to the lab and bank those stem cells,” Dr. Gaynor says.
You’ll also want to think about the risks involved in putting your dog through stem cell therapy. Dr. Vulliet says putting safety first is the primary concern. After it was found that injecting stem cells into the coronary arteries of university-owned dogs created mini heart attacks, the procedures were stopped until the technique had been improved.
According to Dr. Gaynor, there are three things to consider. The first is the same as any operation — the general risks associated with anesthesia needed to perform the procedure. “But there always is some anesthesia risk, especially as patients get older and sicker, but we can minimize that with good anesthesia,” he says. The second is the risk posed by the surgery itself. The biggest health threat he has seen is fluid pockets forming at the site of the surgery, which is a relatively minor problem.
Finally, there are the stem cells themselves. “Because they are the dog’s own stem cells, there’s virtually no risk,” he says. “The biggest thing we’ve seen is a few dogs whose nails grow faster than expected; that’s as bad as it seems to get.” With the benefits likely outweighing the risks, there’s a good chance that many dog owners, perhaps even you, will be exploring canine stem cell treatments in the not-too-distant future.
Kim Ribbink is a freelance writer and editor based in Perth, Australia, who specializes in health care and the life sciences, as well as pets. She has been a journalist for 20 years, working for magazines, newspapers and online publications covering a broad range of topics.