When it comes to this pioneering treatment, dogs are way ahead of humans.
Animal companions keep us happy and healthy, and more of us own pets than ever before. It’s clear that we’re sentimentally devoted to those pets—more than half of us say we’d “leap into action” for our furry family members if they were injured. And with 47 percent of American households owning at least one dog, and more than 83 million dogs claimed as pets in the United States according to the American Pet Product Association (APPA), the old adage about dog being man’s best friend appears to have a lot of truth to it.
It’s also true that 20 percent of our canine friends suffer from arthritis: the degeneration of cartilage, causing bone-to-bone contact around affected joints, which makes it difficult and painful to move around. The older an animal gets, the more likely the condition—80 percent of dogs over eight years old suffer from it, says Amanda Reilly, the operations manager for Animal Cell Therapies, a company working on regenerative relief for arthritis in dogs. And since the disease is not fatal, many dog-owners spend thousands of dollars every year to alleviate the pain and improve their pet’s quality of life, Reilly says.
“Research shows that if a condition is not going to kill the animal, people pay upwards of $3,000 a year per dog to manage it,” she says. In fact, pet owners spent $58.04 billion in 2014 on their pets, with medical issues topping the expense charts, according to the APPA. Dog owner Jane Scoggins is familiar with the phenomenon.
Raina the dog before stem cell therapy.
One day, just a year and a half ago, Scoggins stretched her arm behind her head and whipped a tennis ball over her shoulder for her dog Raina, a 10-year-old Shetland Sheepdog, to fetch. Raina had been begging to go outside just moments before, but she took only a few tentative steps in the ball’s direction, feebly sighed, and then gave up. It turned out that Raina was suffering from canine osteoarthritis.
“The medications and supplements weren’t helping,” says Scoggins, a retiree in Virginia. “And you can’t fix arthritis with surgery.”
After spending thousands on treatments that weren’t working, Scoggins stumbled across information about animal stem cell therapy and signed Raina up for the procedure at a veterinary clinic nearby in Richmond. For a few days after therapy, Raina didn’t trust her suddenly lessened pain, climbing steps with great caution.
Today, Raina goes outside for five play sessions a day, even in the bitter cold. “I can’t keep up with her,” Scoggins says. “These days she can run forever.”
Animal stem cell therapy is a regenerative technique through which stem cells are harvested from an animal, isolated, then injected directly into the troubled joints. It can be used to treat arthritis, tendonitis, and injuries in our furry friends. The methods vary from clinic to clinic. Some, like the one that treated Raina, use adult stem cells from the suffering pet itself. They put the dog under anesthesia, make a minimally invasive cut, and remove a few tablespoons of the animal’s fat. The stem cells that normally lay dormant in the fat are isolated, then activated using a platelet-rich plasma and light. After that, they’re reinjected into the joint through the bloodstream via IV as a fail-safe measure.
MediVet is one of the few companies in the country to market this kind of therapy. They’ve developed an apparatus for separating stem cells that veterinarians can use right in their offices. According to Thomas Masterson, MediVet’s vice president of sales, more than 300 clinics have implemented their in-house technology, with upwards of another 1,000 clients worldwide. More than 5,000 animals have been treated using MediVet technology, according to a statement from MediVet lab technician Delaney Kennedy in a PennLive article about stem cell treatments.
“[MediVet] takes what used to be a longer process and makes it a one-day procedure,” Masterson says. “Because it’s in-house, the procedure is becoming more affordable and pet insurances are even beginning to cover it.”
Scoggins says her dog’s procedure cost a little over $2,000, following X-rays and bloodwork to confirm the arthritis and prepare her for anesthesia. Raina went through the minor surgery and injection, then Scoggins paid an additional $150 to free and store the extra cells for future injections.
“I would take out a loan on my house to do this again if I needed to,” Scoggins says. “It’s that worth it.”
Other stem cell technologies are available for pets, such as bone marrow stem cell therapy and adult umbilical cord stem cell therapy, provided by Animal Cell Therapies (ACT). A benefit to this procedure is that there is no cell harvesting surgery necessary for ailing patients. Using this method, stem cells are harvested from unused adult umbilical cords after a dog gives birth via cesarean-section, then injected into a different animal in need. The cells are also a purified population, unlike the cells that come from fat, which can contain as little as one percent stem cells.*
Raina, 10 months after treatment.
There is another slightly more controversial embryonic stem cell therapy being tested, but some research shows that those cells have a propensity to develop into teratomas, a type of rare, yet invasive tumor characterized by germ-cells. Research shows that adult stem cells do not share this trait. Kathy Pertucci, CEO of Animal Cell Therapies, says that while it’s true that embryonic cells could turn into tumors, they have done extensive testing of adult cells and have never seen any tumor development.**
“Bone marrow and fat from aging dogs lose potency and the stem cells also decrease dramatically as they get older,” says Pertucci. “We have worked with all tissue types and the cord cells outperform the others in cell growth, potency, ease of collection, sample consistency, and final product consistency.”
ACT is currently funding a study out of the University of Florida on the effects of umbilical cord stem cells in animals exhibiting osteoarthritic pain in their elbow joints. Researcher Stanley Kim says preliminary results have shown improvement in gait during orthopedic examinations in nearly all animals tested.
A few small studies have confirmed the benefits of stem-cell treatments in various applications. In 2007, a double-blind study of 21 dogs showed that mesenchymal stem cells improved osteoarthritis. Additionally, a study from 2012 proved that bone marrow MSCs healed tendon injuries with horses and helped avoid re-injury. In 2013, MediVet claimed that its osteoarthritis treatments showed a 95 percent improvement rate, based on 155 case studies.
But it’s important to keep in mind that most of the studies done on this therapy, scientists say, are funded by the businesses selling the technology. While these studies and the anecdotal evidence show strong promise for stem cell therapy, scientists are hesitant to promote it as a replacement for surgery in pets where surgery is an option. Stem-cell treatments lack control groups or blinded evaluation, which demonstrate whether or not the treatments are actually successful.
“Because of the lack of outside research, we don’t know if they’re truly isolating the cells they’re supposed to be or even if those cells are working,” says Dr. Shila Nordone, who recently served as the Chief Scientific Officer for the AKC Canine Health Foundation and today directs the Companion Animal Parasite Council.
“[Stem cell therapy] is a really promising area, but we don’t have any studies to show that it really does work. Anecdotes aren’t enough.”
In addition to companies focusing their research on stem cell therapy, university veterinary medicine schools are conducting clinical trials on all types of animals as well. However, as the AKC Canine Health Foundation continues to study this phenomenon, Nordone advised dog-owners interested in the procedure to get it done through a clinical trial in academia, and current AKC spokesperson, Sarah Wright verified that the organization stands behind that route.
Universities undertake clinical studies funded through organizations like the AKC or businesses trying to market technology. The schools then attempt to stir up participants through local newspaper ads and stories, and local message boards. For those looking for a study in their area, there are many going on right now across the country and an Internet search for stem cell studies for canine arthritis in your area should bring up some options.
The FDA just came out with a ruling that animal stem cell therapy will be regulated like a drug, and hence be subject to approval from the organization moving forward. As of right now, the FDA states that stem cell therapy is defined as a medical product which also must be approved. Currently, there are no licensed human stem cell treatments via the FDA.
*A clarification has been made in this paragraph to indicate that while there is embryonic research being done in this avenue, it is not ACT doing the research. They use adult umbilical cord stem cells.
**Another clarification has been made in this paragraph to further explain the circumstances surrounding this type of treatment.