Over the past year, osteoarthritis has limited Draeco’s mobility.
Draeco is a nine-year-old German shepherd that has been the partner of Paul Biederman of the Nicollet County Sheriff’s Office for seven-and-a-half years.
As many police canine handlers can attest to, these animals are a member of the family. So Biederman was excited to hear that Draeco would be the first patient at the Andover Animal Hospital to receive stem cell therapy, prolonging his partner’s career.
“We got him four months after I got married so he’s like our first child,” Biederman said.
Biederman’s sister Dr. Joanne Kamper brought the idea to the Andover Animal Hospital, according to Dr. Kari Wittmer, who lives in Coon Rapids and owns the Andover Animal Hospital.
Dealing with arthritis, particularly for dogs, has been a challenge for veterinarians because all they can do is prescribe medication that dulls the pain, but does not reduce inflammation, Wittmer said.
“We decided to get on board with this because it’s a life-changing treatment that can help significantly improve the quality of these patients’ lives,” Wittmer said.
This is not embryonic stem cell therapy, she said. The stem cells come from the own patient’s fat that is cultured for stem cells and injected into the affected area. Dr. Corey Orava from California-based Vet-Stem visited the Andover clinic Oct. 16 to observe Kamper inject the stem cells into Draeco’s hip.
The next patients in line for the stem cell therapy were a three-year-old old English bulldog named Bailey and two cats.
Draeco’s therapy was free thanks to donations from Wittmer, some Andover Animal Hospital clients and Vet-Stem, but Orava said the therapy can cost $2,000 to $3,000 depending on how many joints are affected and how big the animal is.
Wittmer said it requires general anesthesia during the surgical procedure to collect the falciform fat, which is then flown to California so the stem cells can be collected from the fat. Then it is flown back to Minnesota for the concentrated material to be injected while the animal is sedated.
As of Monday evening, Biederman said Draeco is doing well and has returned to light duty.
“When the incision completely heals he will be able to be more active. After that we should see the improvement,” Biederman said.
Vet-Stem has shipped over 40,000 doses to more than 10,000 patients since 2004, mostly for dogs and horses, but some cats as well, according to Orava.
The dog owners they have surveyed said about one-third no longer had to give their pet NSAIDS, which are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, while one-third needed it less and another one-third needed to use it the same amount, Orava said.
“We don’t expect 100 percent (success). That’s an unrealistic expectation,” Wittmer said. “What we do hope is to see a positive improvement in condition in mobility or potentially a reduction in the amount of oral pain medications that they need.”
Numerous articles on this stem cell therapy say the trouble with stem cell therapy for animals at this point is that it is unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Orava said the FDA has shut down several clinics across the United States for using stem cells derived from fat tissue for treating humans. This is the same thing Vet-Stem has done for animals for the past nine years.
The FDA has told Vet-Stem that it cannot use embryonic stem cells, it must get the stem cells from the patient itself and cannot transplant stem cells or modify the stem cells in any way, Orava said.
Beyond these instructions, Orava said the FDA has not officially approved any of the treatments.
So no clinical trials have been required, which would be necessary if the FDA viewed stem cell treatment as a prescription drug for animals as it does for humans.
“On the veterinary side, they’ve reserved the right to regulate us, but for now, it’s kind of an informal permission,” Orava said.
Vet-Stem documents every procedure so there are records of what has been done and has 10 peer review publications of its work, which it hopes will alleviate some of the potential requirements of clinical drug trials should the FDA one day require it.
“It’s a young field. We feel we have a responsibility to do this properly,” Orava said.
Vet-Stem has learned the therapy’s limitations.
Stem cell therapy does not cure arthritis, Orava said. It can reduce inflammation, change the immune system or regrow cartilage, but it cannot make a normal joint.
Therefore, according to Vet-Stem, about 60 percent of animals it helped needed to be retreated within two years with additional stem cell doses.
“Some people describe arthritis as a snowball rolling downhill,” Orava said. “All of a sudden now we have something that will not necessarily stop it, but push it uphill for a bit. It’s going to come back down eventually.”
The follow-up stem cell therapy is always less expensive because the pet owner would only have to pay for administration of the dosage, which could be about $500, he said.
There are always extra stem cells from the original surgical procedure that can be cryogenically frozen and stored at Vet-Stem’s California facility. Orava said the literature concludes that younger stem cells are better, so Vet-Stem recommends pet owners consider having the stem cells collected if a veterinarian can tell the therapy will be needed in the future.
For instance, studies have shown that hip dysplasia in dogs can be genetic or happen when the animal is overweight or injured at a young age. It is caused when a femur does not fit correctly into the pelvic socket or pelvic area muscles did not properly form.
Elbows sometimes do not fuse properly in certain dog breeds and stem cell therapy can help, Orava said.
“If you have a dog or breed that is known to have arthritis, you can gather the stem cells when they’re young and the stem cells are the healthiest and bank them for future use,” Wittmer said.
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]