Banking Stem Cells A New Option For Animals

Cryobanking of pet stem cells can be a great help later in their life if degenerative diseases begin to set in.

Katherine Wilkie and lab tech Trey Smith review a cell count for cryogenic banking.

Photos courtesy of MediVet America

Cryobanking allows pet owners to put something away for a rainy day—their pets’ stem cells—in case the animal suffers arthritis or degenerative disease later in life.

“Banking stem cells is like having an extra insurance policy for your pet,” explained Jeremy Delk, CEO of MediVet America of Nicholasville, Ky. MediVet sells in-clinic equipment and the adipose stem cell procedure kit, as well as provides banking services for harvested cells.

After a regenerative medicine procedure, the veterinarian can send any leftover cells to MediVet’s laboratory in Nicholasville, where they will be banked for future use. This is a good move, Delk said, because stem cells do not cure the degenerative diseases for which they are indicated.

Instead, stem cell therapy reduces the inflammation and pain associated with osteoarthritis and degenerative joint diseases, and it provides healing to the joint, but that joint might need a future treatment, or a different joint might need treatment. Banking extra cells allows a second procedure to be done without having to harvest new tissue from the pet—a cost savings to both the veterinarian and the pet owner.

Cryobanking is the long-term preservation of the fraction of hemopoetic stem cells that are derived from adipose tissue used in the procedures.

“Veterinarians perform the procedure in clinic, and they send us a reserved portion of the actual cells that they get and inject into the animal,” said Katherine Wilkie, director of the MediVet laboratory.

Just as parents can bank their newborns’ cord blood cells, pet owners can bank a puppy’s or kitten’s stem cells, and these cells will be preserved for the lifetime of the animal. When needed, they would be thawed and sent back to the veterinarian, who could inject them into the animal.

This is the idea behind the company’s new program, called “Bank Now, Save Later,” which will enable veterinarians to take 5-20 grams of adipose tissue (about a tablespoon) during a spay or neuter of a juvenile animal that will be banked until that animal needs those cells. The program starts this month.

By harvesting tissue while the animal is under general anesthesia for another procedure, the veterinarian eliminates the need for a future anesthesia—and the risk that goes with anesthetizing an animal. Since most dogs that receive stem cell therapy for degenerative joint disease are older, the risks of an adverse event occurring during anesthesia are higher than with younger animals.

Delk said the “Bank Now, Save Later” program is an added benefit for the owner that could result in a profit center for the veterinarian. It could be compared with other value-added services performed during a spay or neuter, such as microchipping. Harvesting adipose tissue is a quick procedure that could add to the charge of a spay or neuter.

“Offering this service to your clients shows the owners that your practice is progressive and on the cutting edge,” Delk said.

This program is available to all veterinarians, not just those who do stem-cell therapy in clinics, Delk said.

To bank a pet’s stem cells, the company charges about $200 plus an annual maintenance fee of $150 to the owner.

How it Works

In the program, veterinarians send in the adipose tissue and MediVet prepares it for cryo-preservation. If the animal is undergoing a stem cell procedure, the veterinarian can prepare the stem cells in the office and send them in for banking.

In both cases, the laboratory combines brightfield microscopy and multi-channel fluorescence imaging to generate cell counts and fluorescence data that is included in a report so the veterinarian will know how many live, active cells there are when the samples are preserved. The report includes cell-per-gram ratios, which are typically 5-20 million cells/gram.

This testing is done with every banking, thawing and adipose tissue processing, and the company sends two copies of the report to the veterinarian—an e-mail copy for clinic records and a hard copy for the client.
 
“This is a good tool for veterinarians to use with the client,” Wilkie said. “They can show the client a picture of the stem cells under fluorescent microscopy. This is cutting-edge technology and it gives the client something tangible.”

The temperature used for storing hematopoietic stem cells is minus 185 degrees Celsius. The cells are stored in nitrogen vapor instead of liquid nitrogen to reduce the risk of contamination.

“We do what the top universities around the world are doing with human cell tissue,” Delk explained. “Vapor is a cleaner approach over liquid nitrogen and eliminates contamination.”

To explain the process to clients, think of hibernating fish in the winter. Anyone who has a koi pond knows that the fish shut down in the frozen pond until spring, when they become active again. The process is similar for the stem cells.

Freezing the cells must be controlled, Wilkie explained. Cell death can occur during cryopreservation if intra- or extracellular crystals form during freezing. Special media are used to prevent freezing damage to the cells, and the media are washed away after thawing.

When needed, the cells are thawed rapidly at 37 degrees Celsius to ensure viability. At least 80 percent of the cells are viable after thawing, Wilkie explained, and usually 90 percent or more are viable.

After the cells are thawed and the preservation media washed away, platelet-rich plasma is added to provide extra growth factors to give the cells the best chance for new tissue differentiation. Given the right conditions in an animal’s body, stem cells can differentiate into various cell types, such as cartilage, bone and muscle, endothelium, pancreatic cells, etc.

Researchers believe that stem cells hold the key to managing many diseases. Right now, regenerative medicine is labeled to treat only arthritis and other degenerative joint diseases, but researchers are looking at stem cells to help treat internal medicine problems, such as atopy and inflammatory bowel disease.

Practicing regenerative medicine can provide many advantages to a veterinary clinic, proponents maintain. In addition to the profit center from providing the procedure, offering regenerative medicine signals to clients that the veterinarian is on the cutting edge of animal medicine.

This Education Series article was underwritten by MediVet America of Nicholasville, Ky.

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