A Dog's Stem Cell Life

Unencumbered by strict regulations, vets find success with stem cell therapy.

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 1:16 PM

BURBANK, Calif., Jan. 9, 2008— -- 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.

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.