A couple of years ago, Brad Perry's dogs started having joint problems. Cowboy, the golden retriever, developed a severe case of arthritis, while Mr. Jones, the mutt, tore the ligaments in both of his knees during some overenthusiastic play.
"It was so sad. They wouldn't even come to the door to greet me they were in so much pain. It just broke my heart," recalled Perry, a tractor-trailer driver from Alexandria, Ky.
Perry gave the dogs all sorts of medications, but nothing worked, and he knew such medications could result in kidney and liver damage. The dogs' suffering became so great, Perry considered putting the pets down. But late last year he heard about a veterinarian in his area who performed stem cell therapy on dogs to regenerate and repair their joints and figured it was worth a try.
Cowboy underwent the procedure first. Mr. Jones followed a few months later. Perry said that within 10 days of receiving treatment the dogs were like puppies again, chasing his kids, running around in the park and swimming in the lake.
The treatment Perry's dogs received was developed by MediVet America of Lexington, Ky., one of several companies that sell equipment and training to veterinary clinics around the world. MediVet has more than a thousand clinics. Participating vets have performed more than 10,000 stem cell procedures – about 7,000 of them in the past 12 months.
An operation like the one Cowboy and Mr. Jones underwent takes several hours. To start, the vet harvests a few tablespoons of fat cells from the pet's abdomen or shoulder, then spins the cells in a centrifuge to separate out the stem cells that are naturally present in fat. Next, the cells are mixed with special enzymes to "digest" any residual fat and connective tissue, and are then "activated" by mixing them with "plasma rich platelets" extracted from the animal's blood cells. The mixture is stimulated under a LED light for 20 minutes or so to further concentrate the stem cells. Finally, the newly awakened cells are injected back into the damaged joint.
Jeremy Delk, MediVet's chief executive officer, said that the therapy works because stem cells are the only cells in the body that have the ability to transform themselves into other types of specialized cells -- such as cartilage -- making them a potent tool for repairing damaged and deteriorating joints. There are 50 to 1,000 times more stem cells in the fat than bone marrow, a source that was more consistently used in animal – and human -- stem cell therapy until the fat method started becoming more popular.
"As we age, humans and animals alike, our stem cells are starting to die off so we have fewer. What we are able to do with these techniques is isolate the cells in very large numbers, wake them up and put them back into the area that needs help," he explained.
While still largely unavailable to their owners, stem cell therapy from fat cells has been offered to our furry friends for several years. With fewer regulatory hoops to jump through in veterinary medicine and no contentious religious debates, experimental procedures are often tested and perfected on animals decades before they're green-lighted for use on humans.
One of the things veterinarians and owners alike praise about the procedure is it can be completed in one day, and all at the vet's office. Stem cells can also be banked for future injection so the animal does not have to endure extraction again.