My wife recently read an article on veterinary patients being treated with stem cells. Very few topics in science engender as many strong feelings as stem cell research. Much of the controversy has generated due to the use of human embryonic cells, because these cells are isolated from human embryos.
Stem cells “…have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth1.” They also have “the ability to divide for indefinite periods in culture and to give rise to specialized cells2.” These qualities potentially give stem cells that capacity to “to differentiate into the specific cell type required to repair damaged or destroyed cells or tissues3.”
Initially stem cell research in humans involved harvesting cells from embryos. While research involving embryonic cells is ongoing, exciting new work has been done in the use of adult stem or somatic stem cells. Adult stem cells are cells “found in many organs and differentiated tissues with a limited capacity for both self renewal ….and differentiation.” It is with adult stem cells from the patient’s own body with which animals are being treated.
Currently stem cell therapy in animals is largely used for treatment of pain and inflammation in arthritis in horses, cats, and dogs5. The two main sources of stem cells in adults are in bone marrow and fat. Bone marrow cells are difficult to collect; instead, veterinarians collect fat cells from the affected patient. Enough fat needs to be collected necessitating that your pet be anesthetized for the process. Your “veterinarian collects a… fat sample (about two tablespoons) from the patient. This requires general anesthesia and a 4 to 7 cm incision.” After collecting the sample it is shipped overnight to a laboratory that concentrates and processes the cells and loads “ready to inject” syringes for treatment. The syringes are sent back to your veterinarian, which he or she injects into the affected joint. They may also inject a syringe intravenously for more generalized therapy. Stem cell therapy proponents claim that they can “induce long-term pronounced clinical improvement”, decreasing lameness, and minimizing need for medical management7. Companies processing stem cells will also bank cells and treatment syringes for future use.
In theory, the uses for stem cells are unlimited and could be a great boon to both humans and animals alike. Your veterinarian should be able to answer any questions you may have as to whether stem cell therapy would benefit your animals. I have not yet used stem cells in practice, but am certainly excited about the possibility.
Please ask your veterinarian if stem cell therapy can benefit your pet. While it may not elicit a cure it may serve as a valuable tool in your veterinarian’s arsenal to treat improve your pets health and wellbeing.
1. Stem Cell Basics, National Institutes of Health page 1
2. Stem Cell Basics, National Institutes of Health page 24
3. Stem Cell Basics, National Institutes of Health page 19
4. Stem Cell Basics, National Institutes of Health page 24
7. Adipose Derived Stem Cell Therapy in the Treatment of Canine Degenerative Joint Disease Secondary to Conformational Abnormalities; Christine M. Meredith, VMD