A Dog's Stem Cell Life

Meet Hunter, a 9-year-old golden retriever. His big, friendly personality dominates life at home with Frank and Linda Riha in Burbank, Calif.

"This is like our child," Linda said. "I mean he is such an important part of our family."

Whether eating, sleeping or going on his daily walks, Hunter calls the shots.

According to Frank, "life revolves around Hunter." And everybody knows him.

"He's a celebrity on the street," said Linda.

But Hunter has a serious problem: severe arthritis in his left hip is so painful that he can't run or leap like a healthy dog.

"His leg, it's almost like it's lifeless and it'll drift back," Linda said, referring to Hunter's tendency to favor his right leg.

X-rays show that Hunter has hip dysplasia, a common ailment in purebred dogs that causes the ball of the leg bone to loosen from its socket, causing painful wearing on the joint.

"You can see that the edges of the bone are very worn away. They're not nearly as smooth," said veterinarian Jerry Bausman.

Facing the possibility of a shortened life for Hunter, the Rihas were considering a $10,000 hip replacement when the doctors offered something new, different and much less expensive. For only about $2,500, they could treat Hunter with his own stem cells, the healing and regenerative cells that live in both humans and animals.

"This is an excellent in-between that may mean he may never need a total hip," Bausman said.

Making Strides Without Red Tape

In the race to perfect "regenerative medicine," stem cell therapy for animals is ahead of treatment for humans because it is not so strictly regulated. It's not experimental -- it's here.

And while the debate rages over the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, doctors have made stunning progress with "adult" stem cells recovered from body fat.

They are less powerful than embryonic cells, but they don't require the destruction of an embryo. There are no side effects and no problems with rejection, because the patient is also the cell donor.

"We're kind of reverting the body back to a younger age or a younger stage when we were more of a regenerative stage," said Bausman.

In a fairly easy procedure, Hunter's stem cells will be recovered from his body fat, isolated in a laboratory, and reinjected into his hip in greater concentration than his own body could accomplish.

Linda was relieved.

"He's just special," she said of Hunter. "He's just a good boy and I get emotional, but it's cause I love him so much."

Hunter was led away and prepped in an animal surgical ward that would be the envy of a lot of small hospitals.

The doctors can take fat cells from anywhere in the body, but they chose to cut just behind Hunter's shoulder where they find a good deposit of fat. Hunter is a little overweight, which adds to his trouble.

The veterinarians removed about 30 grams of fat, packed up the cells and whisked them away to the Vet-Stem laboratory outside San Diego where this procedure has been developed. At Vet-Stem, the fat cells are chopped up, treated and put in a centrifuge that separates the stem cells.

Success With Horses

"The concept is very simple," said Vet-Stem's CEO and founder Robert Harman. "It took a lot of years for us to figure out where these cells were and which ones were they. And how to use them."

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