Charlie is feeling much better these days, and so is his owner, Dominick Belli.
“It’s amazing,” said Belli, who had Charlie, his golden retriever mixed, injected with stem cells from the dog’s own fatty tissue two months ago by Dr. Keith Clement at the Burnt Hills Veterinary Hospital. “We weren’t sure what was wrong. My wife and I thought, `well maybe he’s just getting old,’ but fortunately that wasn’t it. His mobility is great again. He’s going up and down stairs. He’s jumping into the car and out.”
Charlie is one of 15 dogs that have undergone stem cell therapy at the Burnt Hills Veterinary Hospital since June, and one of 1,000 around the country since May who have been helped by the procedure. Most of the animals were suffering from hip displasia or some other kind of arthritic condition that severly limited their mobility, and in most cases, about 87 percent nationally, the dogs became rejuvenated soon after receiving their injections.
“We’ve had some dogs who were pain free two or three days after the injection,” said Clement, who was been working at the BH facility for 18 years. “I understand the science behind it, but it’s still amazing to think that we can harvest these cells, inject them into a joint, and a couple of days later we have a dog that is running around and is pain free. It’s incredible that it works, and it’s incredible that it works so well.”
The Burnt Hills Veterinary Hospital, established by Stanley E. Garrison of Burnt Hills back in 1950, is the only vet clinic in the Capital Region performing the procedure, having been accredited by Vet-Stem, a San Diego based company which earned the patent rights for the procedure from the University of Pittsburgh in 2005.
“The general public really isn’t aware yet of what’s going on,” said Robert J. Harman, a veterinarian who founded Vet-Stem, Inc., in 2002, and began using stem cell treatment in 2004 on horses, in 2005 on dogs, and in 2006 on cats. “They think all of this work is still in the research stage. Somedays I feel like an evangelist, and I have to continue to get out the word. There are places in the world where they’re doing this on humans, not dogs. It works, and it’s a dramatic new tool that we can all be pretty excited about.”
It isn’t a miracle cure, however, according to Harman. It’s just good science.
“It’s just a matter of harnessing the natural repair process,” he said. “If you sprain an ankle and there is swelling and inflammation, your body calls to the blood cells to rush to that area. What we do is bring a bigger number of blood cells into the picture to help repair the area. We extract them from the animal, and then we inject them back into the animal in greater concentration.”
Here’s the way it works. Clement or his colleague Dr. Chris Elson extract 60 grams of fat tissue from the dog and send it to Vet-Stem, Inc. If all goes well, the stem cells are back in the Burnt Hills office just two days later and are injected back into the patient. As fast as that is, however, for now it’s too slow to help in emergency cases, such as a dehabiliting injury from being hit by an automobile.
“The current indications are that it works for arthritis and or ligament and tendon damage,” said Clement. “For emergencies, it’s something that’s just not available yet. But down the road we might find a way for it to work. There are studies being done now with humans, and there are indications stem cell therapy can work for people with heart attacks or liver and kidney disease. The potential is there for some amazing medicine.”
The cost of the procedure for pet owners is around $2,500, but that’s less than the $4,000 or $5,000 you might pay for your pet’s hip replacement surgery.
“It’s my responsibility to tell the pet owner what kind of condition their pet is in, and then educate them about the options available to them,” said Clement. “We talk about the best option, and if that’s not affordable we move down the list to the next one. The cost is significant, but there were plenty of people willing to pay more for hip replacement surgery before they had this option. It’s still rare, but over the next year I think you’re going to see a lot of people helping their dogs through this procedure. People love their pets, and they don’t want to see them suffer.”
That was the situation Charlene Hubbley found herself in. A customer service manager at the BH Veterinary Hospital, Hubbley loves telling clients and anyone else interested what the procedure did for her 6-year-old German shepard.
“I had heard about it and I knew that we had a couple of cases here, but I was very skeptical,” she said. “I did it as a last resort. It was either try this or put my pet down, and oh my God, that would have been horrible.”
Heidi, who had been dragging her hind feet and become extremely immobile over a period of two weeks, suddenly started showing improvement within a week after treatment.
“We had her off her medication in five days, and now she’s running around like she’s a puppy again,” said Hubbley. “It’s literally changed her life. When the doctors talk to people about possibly doing it with their pet, they invite me in to tell my story. I would highly recommend it to anyone. The procedure changed my pet’s life.”
There are some dogs that don’t seem to respond to stem cell therapy and while Harman and his associates are trying to pinpoint why, when it does work the results can be amazing.
“With either race horses or show horses, 75 percent of the ones we worked with improved to the point where they reached their prior level of performance,” said Harman. “That is pretty remarkable. With dogs it’s more than 80 percent that have a dramatic improvement. It’s so easy, and there are no moral issues because we’re using fat tissue from the animal itself. I can remember being really excited when we learned that fatty tissue had the same regenerative effects as other stem cells, and was even better to use than bone marrow. That’s when I realized there was an opportunity to do some great work.”
Clement first heard about Harman’s company and the opportunity to perform the procedure two years ago.
“I was at a conference and Vet-Stem had a booth set up,” he said. “They were still developing the therapy then, but I took all their brochures and read them, and when I heard they were doing dogs and having a lot of success I got back in touch with them. For years, all we could do was try to make the pet more comfortable. We weren’t doing anything about the underlying problem. Now, we’re able to get the inflammation under control and actually repair those joints.”
In many cases, just one treatment is necessary, although any conclusive long-range data isn’t available yet.
“Our biggest problem was making sure he [Charlie] didn’t lick his incision,” said Belli. “It’s been a couple of months now and he hasn’t had to have another shot yet, but if he does we have enough of his cells for eight more treatments. The treatment really works, and I wish for God’s sake that they could do it for people.”
Those days are coming according to Harman.
“Our country has a longer regulatory pathway than other parts of the world,” said Harman, “but there will be clinical trials beginning in January with adult stem cells, and we continue to make progress. There are a lot of non-legitimate places around the world offering bizarre kinds of stem cell therapy, and those places are acting very irresponsibly. There’s a lot of beaurocracy involved in this country, but that makes us all more legitimate.”