Seeing Is Believing With Stem Cell Therapy

Veterinarians have seen so many technologies come and go over the years that they can’t help but ask, “Is this really the next level of treatment, or just another fad?”

Veterinarians have seen so many technologies come and go over the years that they can’t help but ask, “Is this really the next level of treatment, or just another fad?”

Today, stem cell therapy is much in vogue for the treatment of osteoarthritis and soft-tissue injuries. But will it become a conventional treatment, or is it a momentary phenomenon? Does stem cell therapy really work with pets, and do the benefits last?

The science isn’t all that old. Veterinarians started hearing about stem cell therapy for horses in 2003 and as early as 2005 in small animals. While the potential was intriguing to veterinarians, the cell processing had to be outsourced.

That meant two appointments for each patient. The tissue sample had to be sent to an outside laboratory, processed and returned. The cost to the client involved an outside processing fee of up to $1,500.

Some veterinarians had a hard time selling the novel technology to animal owners. Then the technology began moving in-house, and success stories soon followed.

One involved Thomas Newland, DVM, owner and medical director of Adobe Animal Hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz. His patient, Molly, a 3-year-old spayed female Lab/chow mix, suffered from severe bilateral hip dysplasia, with the right side much more pronounced than the left.

“This dog had hip dysplasia at an early age,” Dr. Newland said. “She always sat off to the side, she never sat square.”

The owners wanted to do what was best for their pet, so Newland brought in an orthopedic surgeon for a consult.

“We agreed that doing a total right hip replacement and stem cells on the other would be the best therapy that we could do in the same day,” he said.

A small sample of fat was surgically removed from behind Molly’s shoulder blade.

Using a collection kit and equipment made by MediVet America LLC of Nicholasville, Ky., Newland processed the cells in the clinic and injected them back into Molly within three hours.

The patient, its owners and Newland didn’t have to wait long for the results.

“We stem-celled on May 31, 2011, and then on Sept. 2 we were taking follow-up X-rays,” Newland said. “To my and also the orthopedic surgeon’s amazement, the X-rays showed less sclerosis, less arthritic bone, in the stem cell side.”

Molly was a changed dog at home.

“She hasn’t been this good since she was 6 months old, according to the owner,” Newland said. “She’s running around with the other dog at home, and the owners said it’s just like she never had anything wrong with her.”

Both behavioral and radiographic changes are important markers to an industry seeking evidence that stem cell therapy is an efficacious treatment for animals.

“We have an MRI tracing study under way with a much larger sample size than anyone has attempted in the past,” said Jeremy Delk, CEO of MediVet America. “We hope to display these images to the entire veterinary industry to show what many of their colleagues are experiencing in clinics across the U.S. and the world. It will be a real game-changer.”

One way to make the technology commonplace in veterinary clinics, some say, is to put it directly in the hands of private practitioners.

“Practices that conducted 10 to 12 stem cell procedures a year with the older technologies are now performing 10 to 12 procedures a month,” Delk said.

The company’s Adipose Stem Cell Procedure Kit was launched commercially at the 2010 Western Veterinary Conference.

“We were achieving counts of 1 million to 2 million cells per gram of fat then,” says Katherine Wilkie, director of the company’s Lab Services. “Today we are seeing averages of 20 million cells per gram.”

Adobe Animal Hospital was one of MediVet’s early customers. The decision to jump aboard wasn’t that difficult, said Newland, who has performed 25 to 30 stem cell procedures since October 2010. And it wasn’t that expensive.

“I’m in the process of adding digital X-rays, which is going to be a $94,000 venture,” Newland said. “My venture last year to bring stem cell technology to our clinic cost a little over $8,000.

“There are certainly a lot of other areas that gather a higher profit margin than this particular procedure, but [a value can’t be placed] on the ability to change our pets’ lives,” Newland continued.

Among those pets is Newland’s dog, Shiloh, who has had the procedure twice.

“He was on everything I could think of for osteoarthritis, elbow dysplasia and hip dysplasia, and yet periodically my wife would say, ‘Shiloh’s in a lot of pain,’” Newland recalled.

Shiloh was treated twice because Newland’s thinking has changed about the science and its potential.

“Let’s go back in,” he said. “Let’s harvest, let’s bank cells, let’s give these cells periodically and see whether we can decrease the amount of osteoarthritis, degenerative changes, within joints. That’s what I’ve been looking to do on my dog.

“With the technology presented to us, we have the opportunity to answer the questions, ‘Should we wait until these dogs get crippled again?’ or ‘Should we bank cells and do a touch-up every six months or every year?’”

Despite anecdotal stories of success, some veterinarians have been slow to embrace stem cell therapy.

“The biggest advice I would give to veterinarians is keep an open mind and read,” Newland said. “There is a ton of information out there on stem cells and reparative therapy, not only in the veterinary line but in the human line.

“Do a case or two after doing your reading, doing your homework,” he advised. “You don’t have to purchase the equipment right off the bat. You could go ahead and harvest the fat and send it out, then get the cells back. I think you have to crawl before you can walk.”

The results can be measured not only in the patient but in the owner as well.

“When you see the owners’ eyes, honestly I think the procedure is underpriced,” Newland said. “That intangible value—being able to see these dogs get up and walk around much better—the clients are ecstatic, they’re hugging you. The changes you make in that patient’s life are just remarkable.”

Newland believes that stem cell therapy may bring other benefits as well.

“It’s my opinion, but I think enough veterinarians would agree that the stem cells do more than just alleviate pain,” he said. “We’re certainly not making them puppies again, but the cognizant ability, the awareness, the engagement of that pet after a stem cell procedure is amazing.

“I’ve seen it in my own dog,” Newland continued. “He’s more engaged with the other three dogs at home, he’s more engaged with the people at home. I do believe that these cells have the ability to repair neuro cells and even become neuro cells.”

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

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