Cutting-edge Stem Cell Treatments Improve Dogs’ Lives

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Now that two-thirds of dog owners consider their dogs to be family, dog moms and dads are willing to search for the best medical care possible when their canines become ill. Only a few decades ago, choices were few and basic, but today, dog healthcare is on the cutting edge of medical science.

One of those advances is in the use of stem cells. A number of stem cell research studies involving dogs are under way, with new treatments available every year. Although they’re still fairly rare, an increasing number of vets are starting to include stem cell therapy in their practices.

Stem cells, sometimes called the body’s repair cells, become activated and turn into other specific cells, making them able to restore injured or diseased body parts. But, especially in older dogs, the cells no longer activate on their own. For those dogs, vets can harvest cells and then process them in a laboratory, signaling them to change into whatever cell is needed.

Right now, the most common stem cell treatment is for orthopedic problems including osteoarthritis, an inflammatory process that leads to destruction of joints. The treatments are often successful, sometimes extraordinarily so, with up to 95 percent of owners reporting recovery and saying that their dogs, who before treatment had trouble going up or down stairs or getting up on the couch, now had little or no problems. Almost all dogs showed at least some improvement. This success has led to an increasing number of other conditions for which therapeutic stem cells are a medical option.

To harvest stem cells, dogs undergo minor surgery under general anesthesia. The vet harvests about two to four tablespoons of fat from the dog’s belly or shoulder blades. Cells are separated and activated in the laboratory, then injected.
Piper, a six-year-old English bulldog, was in bad shape when Vicki Varona of Southern California Bulldog Rescue brought her home. Piper was 27 pounds, emaciated, with ribs and spine showing. She suffered from chronic severe diarrhea and was eventually diagnosed with irritable bowel disease.

“I dealt with it for months,” Varona said. “The food went in, but her body wasn’t absorbing it. She was put on prednisone. I talked with nutritionists and was cooking chicken feet to get the gel. She couldn’t process nutrition and was losing weight, going down to 24 pounds. I tried everything, but it was a losing battle. She was starving to death.” At wit’s end, Varona was open to any solution when Bulldog Rescue’s vet, Dr. R. J. Kraemer, an early adopter of stem cell treatments, suggested that Piper might be a candidate for the therapy. “What did I have to lose?” Varona told herself.

Piper was too skinny for the doctor to extract fat from her shoulder or belly. But there was a spot of fat on Piper’s chest they could use. “They injected her and in a few days, darned if she didn’t start gaining weight,” said Varona. The diarrhea started to get better as well. “We did a second treatment a month later and, a few months after that, another one. It worked.” Four years later, Piper weighs in at 60 pounds. “She’s a little fat, but that’s okay with me.”

Piper may have been one of the first dogs treated for IBD using stem cells, but now a number of canine research projects are exploring using stem cells for kidney treatment, diabetes, loss of bladder control and other disorders. The information coming out of these studies might soon revolutionize medicine for dogs and for humans.

At the University of Minnesota, stem cell investigator Dr. Kristina Kiefer recently completed a study that may make stem cell treatments easier for dogs and cheaper for their owners. “We’re still going through the data, but owners are reporting a 95 percent success rate, with many saying that the treatments made a huge difference in their dog’s quality of life.”

In a study of 110 dogs with osteoarthritis, the Minnesota study used donated cells, harvested from dogs undergoing surgeries such as spays and neutering, instead of cells from the afflicted dog. “If you use a dog’s own cells, the number of samples you get are the number of treatments you get. But with the donated cells, we can treat 20 or 30 dogs multiple times,” she said. “There’s a cost differential too, because much of the cost is the surgery to harvest the cells. Right now, osteoarthritis treatment ranges from $2,000 to $4,000, but this protocol will bring costs down considerably.”

Kiefer says that dog studies have human parallels. “We do this to help dogs, but dogs serve as a model for human diseases. There are a lot of active human trials. I expect we’ll have widespread use in people in the next five to ten years.” New treatments for dogs should be on the market much sooner, in the next couple of years. ■

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