For a lot of people, pets are members of the family. And it can be heartbreaking to see a beloved dog or cat suffer from injury, or from hip dysplasia, degenerative joints, or arthritis. In years past, pet owners had to rely on medication, surgery or even in some cases, euthanasia to mitigate an animal’s suffering. Now, stem cell therapy is poised to revolutionize the veterinary field even as the hard science behind it has a way to go. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler has the story.
For the past year, Corey Berkstresser of Lexington has had to witness his Saint Bernard Cujo suffer from rapidly deteriorating function in his hips. Corey wasn’t really sure what to do about it. On the one hand, large breeds such as Saint Bernards have a life span of eight to ten years; Cujo, who is eight, is in his twilight years and joint issues are almost to be expected. But it was still gut wrenching for Corey.
COREY BERKSTRESSER: He just starts to make his way up the stairs, and I hear him whimpering and I go see what’s wrong and he’s only 25 percent of the way up the staircase and he’s just standing there and his back legs are shaking like he’s even scared to take another step so I picked him up by his rear, by his hips, and helped him up get up the stairs. He’s a 150-pound dog and it wasn’t an easy task and that’s when it really set in.
Corey first heard about stem cell therapy from veterinarian Walter Logan of The WellPet Group, a concierge practice for companion animals, in Lexington. A vet for 36 years, Dr. Logan began transitioning into stem cell therapy last year.
WALTER LOGAN: I actually think that regenerative medicine therapy is going to change the way we practice in the next few years on many fronts and I’m very excited about it and happy to be on the forefront of it.
Since the early to mid-aughts, stem cell therapy has been used by the equine industry to treat orthopedic conditions in horses – repairing fractures, tendon and ligament injuries, and treating arthritis.
The transition to small animal therapy – meaning, dogs and cats – is new. Part of this, of course, is the money. Dr. Logan says it costs roughly $1,800 to $2,000 for pets who come to him through an outside referral. Members of his practice pay significantly less.
LOGAN: Regenerative stem cells are attracted to inflammation and these joints are just full of inflammation and that’s what creates the pain, makes the animal uncomfortable and limits their range… and the first thing these cells do is decrease inflammation.
Stem cells are essentially immature cells that do not yet have a specific job to do in the body. They can be extracted from several different body tissues, but Dr. Logan pulls his from an area of extra fatty tissue below the animal’s belly button. The tissue is put through a process to separate the stem cells from the fat. The stem cells are then injected into the injured part of the body.
BERKSTRESSER: Seven days after the stem cell treatments we had come into the basement and we started to go up the stairs and I’m like, here’s the test. He didn’t run up them but [he walked up them] unassisted. He never whimpered. He never stopped and that’s when it really set in that I think I’ve done the right thing. This is really going to make a difference.
It sounds like a magic bullet. And in some ways, it is—getting to watch an older dog walk easily up the steps, where a few years ago he might have had to be put on a lifetime of medications or even be put down.
But stem cell therapy, particularly in the small animal realm, has been moving at such an accelerated clip, results have been primarily anecdotal. Rigorous, long term scientific study of certain conditions, as well as industry oversight, hasn’t always kept pace. This is according to Jennifer Barrett, a professor of equine surgery at Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center. She says stem cell therapy in small animals is promising.
BARRETT: There are some conditions where the evidence is quite good for stem cell therapy. We’re doing a lot of research looking at it to treat osteoarthritis and we’re doing research in a large clinical trial in dogs to look at treating tendon injury in dogs. And our initial results are very favorable but they’re not published.
In June, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine finally published guidelines for the industry, an indication of greater regulatory oversight in the coming years.
BARRETT: The question came, is the veterinary field and is the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, are they going to regulate the veterinary stem cells therapy in the same way as the human stem cells are regulated, and essentially the answer came down to, essentially yes, they’re being regulated very similarly.
LOGAN: The vet schools, the research labs, they’re just now starting to pump out these papers and put their own departments together. Over the next few years I really do think you’re going to see this really take off. It’s going to change the way we practice medicine over the next few years.