Cris, a 5-year-old police dog in the San Francisco Bay Area, was suddenly faced with an early retirement following a muscle injury. Similarly, the 12-year-old mare and winner of the 2006 championship in Scotland, Marsh Mayfly, was incapacitated after incurring a torn tendon during a competition. But now, both animals have returned to their productive careers after having been treated with their own adult stem cells. In fact, in Cris’s case, a sonogram revealed that the dog’s previously injured hamstring muscle had been completely restored to its normal condition a mere 8 weeks after the adult stem cell therapy was administered.
Collectively, the U.S. company Vet-Stem and the U.K. company MedCell Biosciences have treated over 5,500 horses and 1,700 dogs with their respective autologous adult stem cell therapies, for which veterinarians usually charge around $3,000 per procedure. According to Dr. Hubert Kim, orthopedic surgeon and director of the Cartilage Repair and Regeneration Center at UC-San Francisco, "The results in animals provide an exciting look forward into what human therapies might look like. It gives you a snapshot of what may be possible."
As Dr. Gregory Ferraro, director of the Center for Equine Health at UC-Davis, explains, "Stem cell therapeutics is the most exciting development that has occurred in the 38 years I’ve been a veterinarian. By treating animal disease with stem cells, we can learn to treat animals better and find new ways to help humans."
The University of California at Davis boasts an impressive veterinary adult stem cell program which was funded in part by a $2.5 million donation from Dick Randall, a former real estate executive who now owns and breeds competition horses. When Hustlers Starlight, one of Randall’s horses, suffered a ligament injury, the veterinarian recommended Vet-Stem’s services. Within 2 months after treatment, the horse was exercising with a rider once again. Since then, Randall has had 8 other horses treated with Vet-Stem’s procedure. Similarly, Tim McQuay, who operates the 200-horse facility at McQuay Stables in Tioga, Texas, has had 50 horses treated by Vet-Stem, 90% of whom have shown dramatic improvement. Not only do the autologous adult stem cells regenerate damaged tissue, but they also exhibit important immunomodulatory properties that reduce inflammation. A number of clinical trials in horses and dogs have been published in the veterinary literature and are believed to be directly translatable to human therapies. As Sean Owens, assistant director of the Regenerative Medicine Laboratory at UC-Davis, points out, "Sometimes things get driven along because the public wants it. We want to show if this is as effective as the public thinks."
According to Linda Powers of Toucan Capital in Bethesda, Maryland, which provided $2.4 million in start-up funding for Vet-Stem in 2002, "The market is gigantic. We Americans are crazy for our pets." This year Vet-Stem expects to report around $4.5 million in revenue.
Indeed, the U.S. veterinary market is one of the largest in the world, which is precisely why MedCell of the U.K. entered the U.S. market last year by opening a branch in Florida, from which its VetCell unit has treated around 2,500 horses thus far. Additionally, the company also treats between 80 and 100 dogs per month.
While Vet-Stem’s procedure takes less than 48 hours to produce a ready-to-deliver therapy from adipose-derived stem cells, MedCell’s procedure takes 3 to 4 weeks to produce a stem cell therapy from bone-marrow-derived stem cells. In either case, the results are directly translatable to humans, and MedCell has received authorization from British regulators to begin human clinical trials during the first quarter of 2010 for the use of bone-marrow-derived autologous adult stem cells in the treatment of torn Achilles tendons and rotator cuffs. Results of the clinical trial are expected to be available in time for promotion of the treatment during the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Jan Nolta, director of the human stem cell program at the UC-Davis medical school, estimates that at least 1,000 people have participated in U.S. FDA-approved clinical trials in which adult stem cells were used as therapies for a wide variety of medical conditions which include not only orthopedic problems but also heart disease and autoimmune disorders, among others. By sharp contrast, not one person has yet received human embryonic stem cells in any clinical trials. As Robin Young, an investment analyst who follows stem cell companies, points out, "Orthopedics will be the sector of medicine where new technologies like stem cells will find their first utilization."
According to Dr. Gary Brown, the veterinarian who treated Cris the police dog as well as two other dogs, all 3 dogs "have done fantastic. We’ve got reason for hope here. We can take dogs that would go into early retirement and keep them fighting bad guys for many years."