What is Stem Cell Therapy?

Espanola Animal Hospital has been performing stem cell therapy since 2010 and was one of the first facilities in Canada to do so.   Since that time it has become a well-proven and commonly available treatment.  We have had great experiences with hundreds of patients over the past 6 years and many very happy clients.

Current uses for stem cell therapy include degenerative joint disease/arthritis, ligament and tendon injuries, chronic kidney disease and inflammatory bowel disease in dogs and cats. In the near future there is potential for stem cell therapies for a great many diseases and injuries. A number of clinical trials are underway to investigate the use of stem cell therapy for many different diseases and injuries. Many of us feel that this technology represents a paradigm shift in how we will approach treatment of disease and within 5 to 10 years may change the practice of medicine completely.

Stem cell therapy is part of a new branch of medicine called regenerative medicine, which encompasses a variety of technologies including laser therapy, tissue engineering, some aspects of transfusion medicine and a variety of others. But what is stem cell therapy and how does it work?

Most people are familiar with terms such as stem cell therapy, embryonic stem cell research and cord blood just to name a few. Very few people however have any understanding of what these terms actually refer to. The best way to describe a stem cell is a cell that has not yet decided what it wants to be when it grows up. It may have made no commitment yet at all, such as an embryonic stem cell, or it may have partly committed, such as a bone marrow stem cell which will turn into some type of blood cell. Most of the focus in the media in recent years has pertained to embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to develop into an entire animal and any tissue contained in that animal.

The basic premise of stem cell therapy revolves around the potential of a stem cell to develop into one of a number of cell types. It used to be believed that only embryonic stem cells have the ability to do this. We now know that this is not the case and that adult-derived stem cells from tissues such as fat may be either “walked back” or have the ability to be more flexible than initially believed. Not only can stem cells develop into new tissue, they play a major role in healing damaged tissues.


How Stem Cell Therapy Works

Stem cell therapy in its current form works by retrieving stem cells from bone marrow or body fat, which contains stem cells in large numbers, concentrating and activating them and injecting them either at the site of injury or intravenously.  They may also be expanded in tissue culture prior to administration.  Curiously, it appears that when injected intravenously, stem cells are able to find the areas where they are needed and migrate to that area in large numbers. Activated stem cells arriving at a site where tissue damage and/or inflammation has occurred participate in healing the tissue and restoring normal function and probably also engage in some regenerative capacity as well.

The process begins by surgically retrieving a small amount of fat or bone marrow from the animal. The fat is then sterilely processed to remove and activate the stem cells and prepare them for re-injecting into the patient. The technique we are currently using recovers between 2 and 4 hundred million stem cells. As the cells are retrieved from the patient’s own tissue, there is no possibility of graft vs host disease seen with organ transplant patients. The prepared stem cells are then injected directly into the site of interest and/or intravenously depending on the disease being treated.

The results we have seen thus far have been very impressive. Since this technique became available in the U.S. several years ago, it is believed that tens of thousands of animals have been treated in North America. There are numerous case reports of high performance horses with devastating injuries being treated with stem cell therapies and being returned to full function again. Recently, a donkey paralysed by a traumatic neck injury was treated with stem cells and is reported to now be walking again.  We have had a similar case involving a cat.

Although relatively new, the procedure is quite affordable when compared to the cost of many other treatment regimes that are currently in common use. Over time we expect the cost will probably even come down slightly as the technology becomes more widely available. As it requires approximately 4-5 hours to perform the procedure and process the stem cells, patients are required to spend the day at the hospital.

The Tip of The Iceberg

The current uses for stem cell therapies represent a small fraction of the probable applications for this technology in the near future. There are currently multiple trials underway to assess the usefulness of stem cells for treating diseases such as diabetes, chronic kidney disease and dozens of others. It is highly likely that in the next 5 to 10 years these treatments will be a major part of our practices.

In human medicine, there are numerous uses of stem cell therapies currently available, most notably involving cardiac patients where there has been great success. In North America, billions dollars have been spent on research investigating the potential to treat spinal cord injuries with stems cells. There has been some success and much interest in tissue engineering (the ability to grow entire organs ex-vivo for use in transplantation).

It is likely that within most of our lifetimes, tissue engineering will mature and become practical and commonplace. As mentioned previously, some types of stem cells have the ability to differentiate into any tissue, and therefore organ, in the body. Given the proper conditions and a scaffold on which to grow, it is not inconceivable that you could grow an entire organ. Infact there has been some success in this regard already; sheets of heart muscle have been cultured and made to start beating synchronously from stem cells. Imagine that in the future it may be quite possible to grow a new heart or kidney or pancreas to replace a damaged or defective organ. And here’s the best part – it won’t be just any heart, kidney or pancreas, but your own, with no chance of organ rejection!

If you have questions or interest in this therapy, please feel free to call the hospital.