By Kelly Diehl, DVM, MS
Science Writer, Morris Animal Foundation
Tune in to your favorite television news or pick up a newspaper, and chances are you’ll find articles related to stem cells. Stem cells were first identified nearly 40 years ago, but in the last two decades scientists have begun to discover how to harness the power of these unique cells to treat disease, particularly in the fields of orthopedics and organ regeneration.
Once the stem-cell revolution began, it didn’t take veterinarians long to start looking at ways to use these remarkable cells in animals. The first veterinary uses were focused on treating orthopedic injuries in horses, but quickly branched out to other companion animals, including dogs.
Stem cells fall into two broad categories: embryonic stem cells and adult mesenchymal stem cells. Adult mesenchymal stem cells are the type used in veterinary medicine. These cells have the ability to differentiate into many different tissue types, such as heart cells, nerve cells and blood cells.
Adult mesenchymal stem cells can be harvested from a variety of tissues. For veterinary purposes, they are collected from fat tissue or bone marrow. The harvested cells are sent to specialized laboratories that take the tissue, isolate the stem cells, and place them in culture media. Once the cells have multiplied several times, they are collected and given back to the patient from whom they were harvested.
Stem cells can transform into almost any cell type, so they can replace damaged or lost cells. Stem cells also release substances that have anti-inflammatory properties, which makes them very useful in the treatment of conditions with a lot of inflammation, like arthritis.
For a little more than 10 years, stem cells have been used to successfully treat osteoarthritis and other joint diseases in dogs. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common joint problems in dogs, with estimates suggesting at least 1 in 5 dogs will develop this problem as they age. Conventional treatment choices include medication, physical therapy and weight reduction. However, many times these treatments fail, or are inadequate to control pain and discomfort as the disease progresses. Stem cells may be a powerful tool in fighting this debilitating disease. Several studies have shown improvement in pain and mobility after stem cell injections into inflamed joints.
Morris Animal Foundation has several ongoing research projects focused on optimizing stem cell use in the treatment of commonly encountered orthopedic/neurologic problems in dogs, including spinal cord disease and cruciate ligament rupture. Preliminary results are encouraging, and although more research is needed, stem cell-based therapies hold promise for a wide range of diseases affecting dogs.
Morris Animal Foundation is a nonprofit organization that invests in science to advance animal health. The foundation is a global leader in funding scientific studies for companion animals, horses and wildlife. Since its founding in 1948, Morris Animal Foundation has invested more than $100 million toward 2,400 studies that have led to significant breakthroughs in diagnostics, treatments, preventions and cures to benefit animals worldwide. Morris Animal Foundation’s Canine Cancer Campaign is the beneficiary of funds raised from the Orvis Cover Dog Contest.