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Stem cell treatment may help dogs with arthritis


They said goodbye to Bourbon at the Ehrlich Animal Hospital. At, 13, the German shepherd mix was too arthritic to stand.

The veterinarian had told Debbie and Bruce Wilinski that the dog would give them a look when he was ready for it all to end.

"I saw the look," Debbie said. "I never want to see that look again."

Last week, more than a decade later, the Wilinskis returned with another dog in pain. But for Canyon, the visit was a second chance. For $2,000, he would undergo a procedure using his own stem cells to bring new life to old joints, easing his pain and slowing his arthritis.

The technique, promoted by a company called MediVet America, has taken hold in a country where 8 million dogs suffer from the degenerative condition.

There's still no scientific proof that the treatment helps in the long term, and no certainty that every owner will get a return on the investment.

But hundreds of pets like Canyon have undergone the procedure. Some now play Frisbee.

The term "stem cell" may call to mind controversy, but ethical debates about human embryos are a separate matter.

Stem cells are found in adults, too. They are called the building blocks of the body because they begin as a wild card but can divide into specialized cells that do different jobs, like make cartilage, bone and muscle. They are being researched around the world for treatment of human disorders such as spinal injuries, heart problems and auto-immune diseases.

Some of the leading veterinary schools in the country have been doing their own work with stem cells. Colorado State University is looking at them in relation to chronic kidney disease in felines. The University of California at Davis has found life-sparing treatments for horses with hoof problems. The University of Georgia is exploring the anti-inflammatory effects of stem cells.

Meanwhile, MediVet and another company called Vet-Stem have taken the developing science into the clinic. In the MediVet procedure, which can be performed by any veterinarian with the right training and equipment, the dog goes under anesthesia and a doctor extracts a tablespoon of fat from its belly.

A veterinary technician takes the fat into a lab and, through filtering and spinning, isolates the stem cells and activates them using LED light, in a process called photomodulation. The stem cells are then reinjected into the dog's problem areas and the animal goes home.

The stem cells incorporate into the joints. The dog gets a couple of weeks of rest.

Then, results.

• • •

Scientists are optimistic and cautious. But pet owners interviewed by the Times sounded like they could do infomercials.

"It was like watching a miracle," said dog owner Lila Najar.

Najar had taken her 8-year-old Shih Tzu to her Orlando veterinarian to be euthanized. The dog, Amy, suffered from arthritis and could no longer stand. Cortisone shots weren't working. Amy's hind legs weren't working. Najar had spent three months carrying her dog.

Then, as they sat in the clinic, the doctor suggested an alternative. He was looking for five patients to try the MediVet treatment. Were they interested?

"Of course, I said yes," said Najar. "This was five months ago. And she's still walking."

Hummer, a 7-year-old dog with hip dysplasia, would play for a few minutes, then need to rest for two or three hours. Now after the therapy at his Panama City Beach clinic, he can go for hours.

"He's running around today like he did when he was 2 or 3," owner Dustin Stokesbary said. "Unbelievable results. ... The one thing we don't know is how long it will last."

That's true for all dogs who undergo MediVet therapy, which has been in use for the past two years. Some dogs may never need it again, MediVet predicts. Others may need a repeat treatment. The long-term results are still unknown.

University doctors studying stem cell technology are paying attention to MediVet. Three who spoke with the Times were of two minds: It's great that dog owners are getting results from a therapy widely considered safe. But at the same time, researchers aren't yet sure exactly what the implanted stem cells are doing.

"I know the veterinarians," Dr. John Peroni, of the University of Georgia, said about the MediVet doctors. "They're very respected individuals. If they're reporting the successes that they are, which they are, they're not making it up. ... But they cannot make any claims about why (the treatments) work."

It could be the anti-inflammatory effects under study in stem cells, the experts say. It could be that cartilage is growing, though cartilage doesn't grow as fast as the results owners are seeing. It could be a combination involving something still unknown, yet to be discovered in a laboratory.

The answer could emerge through controlled clinical trials, prolonged studies, and peer-reviewed work.

"The science is catching up," said Dr. Sean Owens, director of the veterinary Regenerative Medicine Laboratory at UC Davis. "Our goal is to put the underpinnings under the therapies that are out there right now."

Injections of stem cells for arthritis in humans are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but some medical clinics advertise the procedure.

There are exciting possibilities for veterinary stem cell therapy — the potential for taking stem cells from younger dogs and injecting them into older ones, and the ability to bank cells for use in a dog's senior years, a technology already being offered by MediVet.

Still, the technique may not be the answer for all arthritic dogs. Surgery is still the best option for a lame dog with significant bone deterioration and a femur no longer contained by a hip socket, Dr. Peroni said.

"On the other hand, a dog with mild amounts of arthritis, not particularly lame but yet it's obviously affected in the fact that it cannot play Frisbee, give the stem cell a shot," Peroni said. "It's a very benign treatment, very straight-forward, no side effects and it might be really useful for a period of time ...

"We are definitely jumping the gun in attributing miraculous properties to stem cell treatments," he said. "But there is a mounting evidence that stem cells do have amazing properties that will benefit animals and humans in the future."

• • •

Canyon could not wait for the future. His owners had been spending $700 or more a month for treatments including laser therapy, glucosamine shots and pain medication.

"I'd say if we had not done this treatment," said Bruce Wilinski, "in about six months, we would have been looking at putting him down."

Last week, at the Ehrlich facility, their vet, Dr. Harold E. Langbehn, led them to a kennel where a groggy Canyon lay, his belly sewn, his joints shaved for the injections they hoped would change his life.

They met Canyon as a puppy 14 years ago at the Humane Society after Bourbon died. Now he's an old dog with white whiskers.

Debbie crouched by his side.

"Hello there, little angel," she said. "You're going to feel better."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at or (813) 226-3354.

Stem cell treatment may help dogs with arthritis 12/02/11 [Last modified: Sunday, December 4, 2011 9:47pm]
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