OKLA. CITY —
Each time a significant breakthrough occurs in the field of human or veterinary medicine it is followed by great excitement in both endeavors. But no prior surge has produced the impact and optimism like that created with the moderately recent introduction to the world of stem cell research and therapy. And few new medical theories have been as controversial from the human standpoint.
The term “stem cell” probably means very little to the average layman, so let me start with a medical dictionary definition: “Stem cells are one of a human or animal body’s master cells, with the ability to grow into any one of the body’s more than 200 cell types. They retain the ability to divide throughout life and give rise to cells that can become highly specialized and take the place of cells that die or are lost. Unlike mature cells, stem cells can both renew themselves as well as create new cells of whatever tissue they originally belong or to other tissue alike.”
Their use in veterinary medicine the past four or five years has been exciting and dynamic. In the U.S., at least, veterinary medical advancement in this area has out-distanced that of the human field simply because veterinary surgeons and research workers are spared the ethical issues that hamstring their counterparts in human science. In human medicine embryonic stem cells are mainly sourced from the placenta and umbilical cord after birth — in veterinary medicine they are harvested from the excess fatty tissue of the animal to be treated.
With the limitless possibilities for future multiple uses veterinarians in the U.S. and Canada have principally utilized this renewable natural source for the successful treatment of osteoporosis and orthopedic soft tissue injuries. In the U.S. alone it is estimated that more than eight million dogs suffer from some form of degenerative osteoarthritis. According to veterinarian Dr. Robert Harman, “stem cell therapy rejuvenates joints, reduces pain and increases flexibility which enables the animal to do things it used to do. The treatment can change a dog’s lifestyle.”
Dr. Harman is the CEO and co-founder of Vet-Stem Inc., a laboratory that processes fatty tissue to separate stem cells for clinical introduction. Today, more than 2,400 veterinarians in the U.S. and Canada are certified to perform stem cell therapy.
This cutting-edge procedure is accomplished by first surgically removing about two tablespoons of the canine patient’s body fat, which is very rich in stem cells. This is sent to Vet-Stem where technicians utilize special centrifuges to extract the stem cells from the fatty tissue. Within 48 hours the cell concentrate is placed in ready-to-use syringes and shipped back to the veterinary surgeon who can then inject the cell-laden solution into the dog’s injured area. There is little or no danger of rejection because these are the animal’s own cells. To date, 5,000 to 6,000 such procedures have been performed in the U.S. alone, and 80 percent have resulted in a favorable outcome. The cost, which includes anesthetic, harvesting fatty tissue, laboratory separation and preparation, shipping, injection, follow-up examinations and one year cell storage usually runs from $2,000 to $3,000.
Yep, that’s a lot of money for the average family, but my initial thought here was that any dog that is lucky enough to belong to an owner willing to spend that type of money to make their pet’s life more tolerable is truly “a winner in life’s lottery.”
Most professionals who work in this new and exciting field feel that the possibilities are unlimited and that stem cells in general will rewrite the medical and veterinary textbooks in the next 10 to 20 years. Several pet insurance companies cover the procedure described above if the condition is not pre-existing or related to a congenital disorder.
DR. WILLIAM K. FAUKS is a retired Oklahoma City veterinarian. If you have any questions regarding the health of your pet, please write to “Ask a Vet,” at 3142 Venice Blvd., Oklahoma City, OK 73112, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.