Nerve cell growth (ectoderm) from pluripotent stem cell culture.
Figure 1: Nerve cell growth (ectoderm) from pluripotent stem cell culture. This culture of stem cells also created the images in Figures 2 and 3 (below).
Stem Cell Therapy for Pets: Is There A Risk?

First Published: 13 January 2017

In human medicine, stem cell therapy is the hot new thing. Stem cell therapies are also available for pets offering cures for a wide range of conditions. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Basically, there are two schools of thought. One view is that no, right now, unfortunately, the field is just not there – meaning there is not clinical evidence that these therapies work in the real world.

Others, however, do not share this view, and are in fact offering to cure a wide range of pets’ diseases with stem cell treatments.


connective tissue cells (mesoderm)
Figure 2: Green wisps of connective tissue cells (mesoderm); within the same culture as shown in Figure 1 (above) and Figure 3 (below).
What conditions can you treat my pet for with stem cells today?

Stem cell treatments are a way to intervene in the development of and potentially cure a whole host of illnesses and maladies including, but not limited to:

  • Allergic Skin Disease
  • Arthritis
  • Auto-Immune Disorders
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Disc Disease
  • Dry Eye
  • Fracture Repair
  • Heart Failure
  • Incontinence
  • Kidney Disease
  • Non-Healing Wounds
  • Orthopedic Injuries
  • Renal Failure
  • Spinal Cord Injury
  • Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome (SARDS)
Intestinal Cells (endoderm)
Figure 3: Intestinal Cells (endoderm) in the same culture as Figures 1 and 2 (above). Demonstrating that all three germ layers can be created with this culture of stem cells.
Does Veterinary stem cell therapy use embryos?

No. Most of the most current stem cell treatments utilize adult stem cells, normally harvested from the pet’s fat stores, and these stem cells are introduced into the damaged part of the body. The stem cells then self-renew within the damaged part, promoting growth of new tissues and subsequently replace the diseased tissues. This type of stem cell is called autologous.

Since the stem cells have been harvested from the body of the pet, theoretically, the odds of rejection or occurrence of side effects are very minimal. Because this is the case, stem cell treatments essentially provide a less invasive, more viable, and more sustainable therapeutic or treatment approach than traditional medicines and drugs.

Are most Veterinary stem cell treatments still in the research phase?

Yes. It is crucial to keep in mind that most stem cell treatments – apart from bone marrow transplantation – are still in the research stages, and have not undergone clinical trials. Studies in animals are being done, but with an eye on proving that a treatment works in humans, not necessarily for the benefit of animals themselves.

Many of the research studies have been done outside the US for years because embryonic stem cell research was banned or severely restricted here in the US since 2006 by presidential decree. With the discovery of adult stem cells readily obtained from the pet’s own fat tissue, however, clinical trials are starting in the major veterinary institutions and actual clinical use of stem cells has become more available.

Are there potential risks with the use of stem cell treatments?

Yes. Along with the fact that much research is in the preliminary phases and with the lack of published results, stem cell treatments have many risks. The most common risk is that the treatment will not work because all the factors for success may not be known.

For instance, in the case of cancer, there is the danger of aggravating this disease. The introduction of stem cells into a pet with cancer may contribute to the uncontrolled growth of cells which is the primary mechanism for cancer. There has never been a case that this has occurred with adult stem cells, but there are still relatively few cases treated, and this is a theoretical possibility.

Another danger is the unchecked use of the types of stem cells to be administered. Embryonic stem cells are only used for research, are clinically dangerous, and cannot be controlled to prevent cancer. Autologous stem cells are the safest form of stem cells and are those harvested from a pet and used in that same pet. Allogeneic stem cells come from another pet of the same species and are commonly used in stem cell research. These cells are not yet allowed by the US FDA for treating clinical patients but are most likely safe. In countries without the supervision and regulation like that of our FDA, the use of heterologous stem cells harvested from different species such as sheep and sharks have been used for treating human patients. Similar stories abound on the Internet with regard to stem cell therapies in pets. These are the kind of far reaching applications that can scare the average pet owner off stem cells as an option for treatment.

Are all stem cell treatments the same?

No. While stem cell treatment is available in some veterinary clinics, there are concerns about the effectiveness of their therapy. Stem cells are fragile, die easily and are prone to bacterial infection. One provider of stem cell service for veterinarians requires shipping of the stem cells via a major overnight delivery service, which greatly increases stem cell death. Another clinical option requires that the veterinarian process the stem cells from the fat collected from the pet using a centrifuge and water bath in the clinic. However, to help ensure success, a sterile biologic cabinet is needed to prevent infection while the stem cells are being processed, which, in many cases, may not be available. On top of this, there is no way of knowing how many live stem cells are then injected into the pet – another critical success factor. Furthermore, few veterinarians have received training in stem cell processing techniques.

stem cells within fibrocytes
Figure 4: Green stain reveals colony of programmed stem cells within fibrocytes; which stain red. These images are from Dr. Garner’s actual cell cultures. (above images)
The Safari Difference in Stem Cell Therapy

“Turning Research into Reality” is the mission of Safari Stem Cell Therapy.

Here at Safari Veterinary Care Centers, we are implementing a Translational Medicine[1] approach to stem cell therapy. This method takes validated research in stem cell therapy and applies the techniques to clinical cases. Much of this research is done on dogs but the results are focused on the needs of humans. We are translating these results to help our canine companions. In this effort, Safari has developed an advanced stem cell laboratory for processing stem cells, evaluating stem cell viability, expanding stem cell cultures, and the cryopreservation of stem cell lines. Safari also has staff certified in human and veterinary stem cell therapy techniques, as well as surgeons skilled in surgery of the nervous system and spine, equipped with specialized radiology (C-Arm fluoroscopy) for injecting stem cells into the intervertebral disc, spine, joint or other area of need. Safari also has specialists in rehabilitation armed with extensive rehabilitation tools for bringing the stem cell treatment the full circle of success.

What questions are important to ask my vet when considering Stem Cell Therapy?

  1. What type of stem cells are being used?
    • Autologous cells (those taken from the pet itself) are preferable.
  2. Where do they come from?
    • Adipose derived, adult cells are safer than embryonic and quicker than bone marrow derived cells.
    • They come from your pet’s cells, not cells from someone else or something else, making them more trustworthy and compatible, and therefore a safer option.
  3. Where are the stem cells prepared and under what conditions?
    • Cells prepared on-site are more viable.
    • Sterile biological safety protocols, methods, and equipment are important.
  4. How are the stem cells administered?
    • Directly into area of injury or disease with advanced imaging for needle guidance.
    • Administered by skilled surgeons.
    • Intravenous administration is rarely effective when given alone.
  5. What options are there for rehabilitation after the cells are given?
    • Neurological and musculoskeletal conditions require rehabilitation.
    • Multiple modalities such as physical therapy, electro-stimulation, therapeutic laser, therapeutic ultrasound, water treadmills, specialized certifications.


References
1Translational Medicine is defined as an interdisciplinary branch of the biomedical field supported by three main pillars... benchside, bedside and community.
Cohrs, Randall J.; Martin, Tyler; Ghahramani, Parviz; Bidaut, Luc; Higgins, Paul J.; Shahzad, Aamir.
"Translational Medicine definition by the European Society for Translational Medicine". New Horizons in Translational Medicine. 2 (3): 86–88. doi:10.1016/j.nhtm.2014.12.002
The goal of translational medicine is to combine disciplines, resources, expertise, and techniques within these pillars to promote enhancements in prevention, diagnosis, and therapies. Translational medicine is a rapidly growing discipline in biomedical research and aims to expedite the discovery of new diagnostic tools and treatments by using a multi–disciplinary, highly collaborative, "bench–to–bedside" approach.
Woolf, Steven H. (9 January 2008). "The Meaning of Translational Research and Why It Matters" (PDF). JAMA. 299 (2). doi:10.1001/jama.2007.26. PMID 18182604
Within public health, translational medicine is focused on ensuring that proven strategies for disease treatment and prevention are actually implemented within the community. Two hurdles that need to be overcome are the first translational block (T1) prevents basic research findings from being tested in a clinical setting; the second translational block (T2) prevents proven interventions from becoming standard practice.
Woolf, Steven H. (9 January 2008). "The Meaning of Translational Research and Why It Matters" (PDF). JAMA. 299 (2). doi:10.1001/jama.2007.26. PMID 18182604
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has made a major push to fund translational medicine, especially within biomedical research, with a focus on cross–functional collaborations (e.g., between researchers and clinicians); leveraging new technology and data analysis tools; and increasing the speed at which new treatments reach patients. In December 2011, The National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) was established within the NIH to "transform the translational science process so that new treatments and cures for disease can be delivered to patients faster".
"About NCATS – National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences". National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.