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Stem Cell Therapies Go to the Dogs, Horses and Camels

In his profession, job-related injuries are common. So when Buzz, a 3-year-old male Border Collie, was recently injured in his job, it looked as though his career was over. Responsible for the herding of sheep on a 40-acre working farm near Ramona, California, Buzz was faced with surgery and a recovery period of at least 6 months after rupturing a kneecap tendon. According to his owner, John Doyle, “His career was over. He was through.”

However, after undergoing the surgery to repair his tendon, Buzz then also received 3 rounds of autologous adult canine stem cell therapy. Instead of having to endure a 6-month recovery period, Buzz returned to work a mere 6 weeks after receiving the stem cell treatment. As Mr. Doyle explains, “In 2 weeks, you could see that he was healing very quickly. He was able to do a lot more.”

As previously reported a number of times on this website, the California-based company Vet-Stem is demonstrating consistent veterinary success in the treatment of animals with autologous adult stem cell therapy. Although Vet-Stem was the first company to commercialize the process, a number of other companies throughout the world are now also utilizing the same type of technology, in which adult stem cells are derived from each animal’s own adipose (fat) tissue and readministered to the animal as a clinical therapy for the particular medical condition from which the animal suffers. This type of autologous adult stem cell therapy has proven to be a highly preferable alternative treatment for many animals, especially those whose conditions require surgery or anti-inflammatory drugs, both of which can often be avoided with the stem cell therapy.

Vet-Stem was founded in 2002 as the result of stem cell research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh and UCLA in the late 1990s, when Dr. Bob Harman saw the commercial potential for veterinary applications of such stem cell technology. A veterinarian himself, as well as a statistician and former biotech entrepreneur who had already held the top executive title at 3 biotechnology companies prior to Vet-Stem, Dr. Harman is now the CEO of Vet-Stem as well as one of its founders. Based in San Diego, Vet-Stem patterned its initial clinical model upon the example of other companies that were already involved in human adult stem cell therapies, such as Cytori Therapeutics which had developed a proprietary separation apparatus that harvests human adult stem cells from adipose tissue at the patient’s bedside during reconstructive or cosmetic surgery. In a similar procedure, veterinarians extract approximately 2 tablespoons of adipose tissue from each animal, which are then sent to Vet-Stem where the adult stem cells are isolated, purified, expanded and returned within 48 hours to the veterinarian who then administers the stem cells to the animal.

Dogs are not the only animals to benefit from Vet-Stem’s veterinary technology, as horses and other larger animals have also been found to respond very well to adult stem cell therapies. In fact, among other partnerships, in September of 2007 Vet-Stem licensed their proprietary adult stem cell technology to the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL) of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, thereby allowing the CVRL to offer the same adipose-derived adult stem cell animal therapies throughout the Middle East. Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the Prime Minister of the UAE, is an avid thoroughbred owner and a sponsor of the Dubai World Cup, the world’s most highly-prized horse race. As Dr. Harman described in 2007, “The Central Veterinary Research Laboratory will be an excellent partner in bringing this technology from the U.S. to the Middle East as they are already the most respected reference lab in the region.” CVRL now provides stem cell services for the treatment of injuries not only in thoroughbred race horses and Arabian endurance horses, but also in racing camels, among other species, throughout the Middle East. In the United States Vet-Stem has already treated over 3,000 horses and over 2,000 dogs with joint injuries and degenerative conditions that include tendon and ligament injuries as well as age-related osteoarthritis. Vet-Stem’s overall success rate is around 80% in the number of animals who are able to return to normal performance, a rate that is significantly above that of conventional surgical and pharmaceutical therapies.

Ordinarily, injuries of the bones, joints, tendons and ligaments result in scarring of the tissue, which not only prevents full healing but also often leads to further injuries at a later time. Conventional medical therapies do nothing to address the problem of scar tissue directly, and surgical procedures actually make the problem worse by increasing the severity of tissue scarring which in turn merely exacerbates later complications that will inevitably result from the scar tissue, since such tissue can never be fully rehabilitated. Stem cell therapy, however, allows for the full and complete healing of tissue without scarring, which not only reduces the risk of re-injury of the same tissue at a later date but also restores full physical performance and function, usually very quickly and dramatically. Such is the case in humans as well as in animals.

In fact, as Dr. Harman explains, “Our success in animals is directly translatable to humans, and we wish to share our evidence that stem cells are safe and effective.”

Vet-Stem uses exclusively adult stem cells, derived from each animal’s own tissue. Since the cells are autologous (in which the donor and recipient are the same animal), there is no risk of immune rejection. More specifically, the stem cells that are harvested in Vet-Stem’s procedure are mesenchymal stem cells, which are highly potent adult stem cells that are also found in bone marrow and umbilical cord blood. Numerous scientific and clinical studies have been published in the peer-reviewed medical literature detailing the regenerative properties of mesenchymal stem cells.

No embryonic stem cells are ever used in Vet-Stem’s therapies, since embryonic stem cells are highly problematic in the laboratory, whether they are of human or non-human origin. Among other problems, the risk of teratoma (tumor) formation disqualifies embryonic stem cells for use as a clinical therapy, even in animals. Adult stem cells, however, do not pose such risks and are therefore rapidly accumulating a consistent history of successful clinical treatments in veterinary, as well as in human, medicine.

Vet-Stem was initially funded by Toucan Capital of Maryland, which invests in early-stage life sciences companies and which provided an initial one million dollars in seed funding to Vet-Stem as well as an additional five million dollars to date. As with the other biotech companies that Dr. Harman has directed, Vet-Stem promises to be a highly profitable and sound investment, not only for its financial investors but also for its four-legged patients.

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