Veterinary medicine is always progressing and continuing to evolve new therapies for common and not-so-common conditions that afflict our animal companions. One of these new therapies is regenerative medicine. This technique utilizes stem cells derived from the patient’s own body to help regenerate diseased and injured tissues.
Stem cells are the “master cells” of the body. They are the building cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated. Stem cells are unspecialized in themselves, but can give rise to specialized cells. These progenitor cells are very long-lived and can be obtained from many sources in the patient’s own body, known as autologous adult-derived mesenchymal cells.
Mesenchymal stem cells are used in regenerative medicine to help heal damaged tissues. This is due to the many properties of active stem cells. These include the ability to regenerate and heal injured tissues, stimulate new blood supply to the affected area, activate stem cells already residing in the area of injury and break down scar tissue in chronic conditions.
In our veterinary patients, these cells are usually derived from bone marrow or adipose (fat) tissues. Both of these sources provide cells that can differentiate into bone, cartilage tendons and ligaments. In most cases, a patient will have the stem cells obtained from fat tissue as this usually yields a large number of cells for processing, and the procedure to obtain the fat tissue is associated with few complications. These cells are collected while under a brief anesthesia and can be obtained from the fat pad in the abdominal area or from behind the shoulder blade. Both of the areas are then sutured closed after the adipose tissue has been removed. The tissue is then sent to a processing facility to have the stem cells removed from the differentiated adipose cells. These cells are then sent back to the surgical facility for implantation.
Implantation is the injection of the harvested stem cells into the area of injury or disease. The implantation usually requires a brief period of sedation. So, where can we inject these cells and for what types of injuries would this procedure be recommended? The main types of injuries that regenerative medicine is indicated are for orthopedic injuries. These include injuries of tendons, such as Achilles tendon and Biceps tendon tears, and subsequent chronic scarring. Cranial cruciate ligament tears, if partial, can also be effectively treated; this common condition in dogs is known by the name ACL tear in humans. However, the common use today is for the treatment of osteoarthritis. When beginning treatment for osteoarthritis, many therapies will work for a while, such as anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) or joint supplements. By adding regenerative therapy to help regenerate cartilage production, this becomes a good addition to therapy for the very common cause of pain and lameness in our canine companions. The most common sites for treatment are the hip, knees, shoulder and elbow.
Once the stem cells have been placed into the site of injury, healing can begin. To further enhance the healing by regeneration and minimize scar formation, rehabilitation is usually indicated to help return the pet to full function as quickly as possible. The can be a few weeks to a few months depending on the injury site and severity. Consultation with a physical therapist after implantation is recommended to develop a comprehensive treatment plan for the patient.
Currently, more than 10,000 dogs and horses have been treated with this procedure, according to Vet-Stem, a San Diego-based company that processes the cells for transplantation. The procedure is deemed safe, with no major adverse events. During this period, many animals have been helped and relieved of their painful conditions by this technology. To see if your companion is a candidate for this type of therapy, contact your veterinarian.