Even at five years of age, Lucy the Labradoodle was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis in her hind legs. But now, after receiving autologous adult stem cell therapy, she is showing significant improvement. According to her owner, Carol Fischman of Vero Beach, Florida, "We didn’t think she’d live anywhere near this long, and I know it’s because of the stem cells."
According to Dr. Kristin Kirkby, the veterinarian who performed the procedure, "I think it’s an exciting field. Undoubtedly the future of scientific research is going this way. It’s early on, especially on the small-animal side, to know what the results can be." But nevertheless, the results are consistently, dramatically, positve.
As previously reported a number of times on this website, an increasing number of veterinarians are finding success in the use of autologous (in which the donor and recipient are the same animal) adult stem cells for the treatment of a wide range of conditions in animals. Companies such as Vet-Stem in the U.S. and VetCell in the U.K. have developed procedures that are easily utilized by veterinarians and which are becoming increasingly popular as news of the success of such a technique continues to spread. The procedure that Dr. Kirkby used on Lucy the Labradoodle involved harvesting a small sample of the dog’s adipose (fat) tissue, which was then shipped to Vet-Stem’s laboratories in California where the dog’s own adult stem cells were isolated, purified and returned within 48 hours to Dr. Kirkby who administered the stem cells directly to the dog. So far Lucy has received 3 treatments with her own stem cells, and has shown such improvement that her owners are considering a fourth treatment.
Vet-Stem began treating animals in 2003, primarily horses for injuries and dogs for age-related osteoarthritis. To date Vet-Stem has now treated over 3,500 horses and 2,000 dogs, and the treatment of cats is planned for later this year. Approximately 1,500 vets throughout the U.S. are licensed by Vet-Stem to conduct the procedure. In all cases, adult stem cells are harvested from the animal’s own adipose tissue, which is a rich source of the highly potent adult stem cells known as mesenchymal stem cells. In no case are embryonic stem cells ever used, since embryonic stem cells remain highly problematic and are known to cause teratomas (tumors), among other problems, which therefore disqualifies embryonic stem cells as a treatment for animals as well as for people.
According to Dr. Bob Harman, a veterinarian and founding CEO of Vet-Stem, "Really, all we’re doing is harnessing the existing repair machinery in the body, concentrating it, and putting it right where an injury occurs, where healing is needed, to heal naturally."
Adipose-derived stem cells have been shown in a number of studies to exhibit highly beneficial immunomodulatory properties – which reduce inflammation, among other benefits – in addition to stimulating the regeneration of cartilage and other tissue, and such properties are well documented in the medical literature. (E.g., "Non-expanded adipose stromal vascular fraction cell therapy for multiple sclerosis", by N.H. Riordan et al., published in the Journal of Translational Medicine in April of 2009, of which Dr. Harman is a coauthor). As Dr. Harman further explains, "In the last couple of years, evidence has come out that the cells we use reduce inflammation and pain, and help lubricate the joint." 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. As Dr. Harman succinctly states, "Our success in animals is directly translatable to humans, and we wish to share our evidence that stem cells are safe and effective."
Although Vet-Stem was the first company to commercialize the process in the U.S., and VetCell was the first to do so in the U.K., a number of other companies throughout the world are now also utilizing similar types of technology in which adult stem cells are derived from each animal’s own tissue and readministered to the animal as a clinical therapy for the particular medical condition from which the animal suffers. 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.
Dr. Adam Gassel, a veterinarian in Irvine, California, has treated nearly 40 dogs with Vet-Stem’s procedure and is now a strong believer in the therapy, despite his initial skepticism. As Dr. Gassel explains, "I was pretty skeptical. I was hoping that dogs would just be more comfortable." But of all of his canine patients who have received the adult stem cell treatment, 80% have shown significant improvement, approximately half of whom have been able to stop taking medication, and approximately a fourth of whom have completely returned to their normal activities.
The procedure that Vet-Stem has literally distilled to a science is quick, simple, minimally invasive, safe, highly effective, and while it is not cheap, it is less expensive than conventional surgical and pharmaceutical therapies which may not be effective at all. The first stem cell extraction and transplant for a dog typically run between $1,500 and $2,500, although subsequent transplants will often cost much less since extraction is only necessary once. The entire stem cell extraction procedure consists of the approximate equivalent of 2 to 3 tablespoons of the animal’s own adipose (fat) tissue which is surgically removed under anesthesia and shipped overnight to Vet-Stem’s laboratories in southern California where the stem cells are processed and returned two days later to the veterinarian who injects the stem cells back into the animal at the site of injury. Not only do the stem cells automatically target the injured tissue, but they also stimulate the animal’s other endogenous stem cells which in turn are mobilized into action and participate in the healing and repair process. Although improvements are usually dramatic and immediate, even after the first injection, additional injections may be necessary, depending upon the age and particular condition of the animal. Very few animals ever need more than a total or 2 or 3 treatments, however, before they are fully restored to their natural, pain-free state of mobility – which contrasts sharply with conventional therapies such as most prescription medications which may need to be taken indefinitely, without ever producing any tangible signs of improvement and while even possibly causing further damage to the animal through dangerous side effects and other associated risks.
It is worth emphasizing the point that 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, whether for humans or 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.
A number of companies throughout the world are replicating the procedure pioneered by Vet-Stem. It is fortunate that such companies are able to conduct their business without the same burdensome federal legislation that continues to impede progress in human medical adult stem cell therapies in the United States. Consequently, veterinary stem cell therapy has been applied very aggressively to animals, especially to the expensive, large animals such as competitive horses whose lives and careers have literally been saved by such therapies. Even for dogs who do not earn large salaries in high-profile competitions but who are merely beloved pets, autologous adult stem cell therapy has also proven to be life-saving. Meanwhile, in human medicine, however, nothing whatsoever has been allowed to happen in U.S. clinics outside of a small number of government-approved clinical trials, thanks to an outdated, lengthy, lethargic and prohibitively expensive FDA approval process. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that veterinary stem cell medicine has quickly outpaced human stem cell medicine – but now, at last, humans are beginning to learn something from their canine and equine friends.
And the market is huge. Both for humans as well as for animals, the potential commercial market is virtually limitless and thus far untapped. According to Dr. Charles Fischman, an immunologist and one of the owners of Lucy the Labradoodle, "I like the dog as much as I like my kids. People will spend more on their dogs than they will on themselves."