Updated on May 9, 2011
Stem cells: A beneficial therapy or a waste of money?
Stem cell therapy (aka regenerative medicine) is becoming all the rage in veterinary medicine. Initially used only to treat damaged horse parts (tendons, ligaments, and joints) the repertoire of stem cells has expanded to treating dogs, primarily for management of arthritis symptoms. Even a few kitties are getting in on the act as regenerative medicine is investigated as a means of restoring health to their aged kidneys.
Here’s a rundown on the logistics of stem cell therapy. The process begins with the veterinarian harvesting fat or bone marrow samples from the affected individual. These samples are then sent off to a specialized “stem cell company” for processing. Recently, one company, MediVet America, has provided the option for vets to propagate stem cells within their own hospital setting. Once harvested the stem cells are injected into the patient’s affected body part(s) and/or are administered intravenously. Extra cells can also be “banked” for future use. And all of this for a price of $2,000 to $3,000, on average.
In theory, these stem cells have the potential to differentiate into bone, cartilage, and many soft tissue types. Why do I emphasize, “in theory”? To date, there is no proof that the stem cells, once injected into the body, do actually become the cells we are hoping for. Perhaps any observed benefit is a result of biochemical alterations of the cells already present rather than regeneration of new and improved cells.
Not only is there a paucity of information about what actually happens to the cells after they are injected, there is a surprising lack of evidence-based data that supports any benefit of stem cell therapy. In this regard, it appears that the stem cell therapy cart has pulled way ahead of the horse- unusual in the world of “western medicine” where veterinarians are typically reluctant to embrace a particular therapy without it having survived the scrutiny of evidence-based medicine. Yet many western trained practitioners readily offer forth stem cell therapy to their clients based on anecdotal information (individual client impressions, vignettes told by other veterinarians, marketing materials from stem cell laboratories).
According to a recent article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), Dr. Robert Harman, CEO of Vet-Stem Inc reports that his company has processed stem cells from fat samples for approximately 8,000 patients. Approximately half the patients are horses, the other half comprised of dogs and a few cats. In the same article, Dr. Sean Owens, director of the Regenerative medicine Laboratory at the University of California- Davis School of Veterinary Medicine states, “We’ve moved forward so quickly that what we need to do now is put the science underneath.”
Dr. Brennan A. McKenzie is the president-elect of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine Association. As stated in the same JAVMA article, “Dr. McKenzie thinks the use of stem cells is a promising avenue for therapy but that the evidence of efficacy and safety is inadequate to justify the expensive treatment in most cases. He would prefer for clinics to offer stem cells as a truly experimental treatment in formal clinical trials.”
The North American Veterinary Regenerative Medicine Association has recently been organized with hopes of acting as a clearinghouse of information on the use of stem cells in veterinary medicine. Their first official meeting will be in June with the intention of forming standing committees to address things such as clinical trials and regulatory affairs.
Given the paucity of research supporting stem cell therapy, is there any downside to opting for this form of therapy for your dog or horse? While there is always risk associated with general anesthesia (usually required for harvesting fat or bone marrow samples as well as injecting the stem cells into the exactly appropriate spot), thusfar, there have been no reports of adverse effects caused by the stem cells themselves. If my own doggie had significant arthritis pain and nothing else in my medical arsenal (supplements, acupuncture, underwater treadmill therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications) made a difference, might I try stem cell therapy? You betcha. Is there risk of expenditure of two to three grand without a return on investment? You betcha.
Has one of your four-legged family members received stem cell therapy? If so, I welcome your feedback.
Best wishes for good health,
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.