Stem-Cell Treatments for PetsWednesday, Jun. 25, 2008 By JENINNE LEE-ST. JOHNBlue leads an active lifestyle: she runs four times a week around anenormous park in her hometown of Memphis, Tenn.; she likes playingFrisbee and loves swimming. But one day last November, Blue startedlimping — which was odd because the German shepherd seemed fit and wasonly 3 1/2 years old. "She wasn't recovering as quickly as normal froma trek in the park. I thought that was just a sign of ageing," says herowner Twila Waters, 43, with a wry chuckle.In fact, Blue had hip dysplasia, a fairly common and sometimescrippling degenerative condition in dogs and cats. The cure — acomplete hip replacement — would keep Blue in recovery for up to sixmonths. So while Waters mulled the surgery, Blue's regularveterinarian sent Waters to see another local vet, Kathy Mitchener,who was trained in acupuncture, to treat Blue's pain. But Mitchenerhad a better idea. She offered a cutting-edge stem-cell transplant, atherapy not yet available to humans, that would potentially helpBlue's hip repair itself.The treatment took just two days last January. Mitchener had recentlybecome certified to perform the stem-cell treatment, pioneered by thecompany Vet-Stem based in San Diego. She removed some fatty tissuefrom the dog's abdomen and shipped the sample to Vet-Stem's labs,where technicians used centrifuges to extract stem cells from thetissue. The cells were shipped back the next day, and Mitchenerinjected them into Blue's failing hip, where they adapted anddeveloped into the healthy cartilage and tendon cells the animalneeded. Within 36 hours, Waters says, "Blue was moving well, and youcould see ease in her gait." Vet-Stem kept a frozen store of Blue'sstem cells, in case she suffers a relapse or has another orthopaedicinjury, but for now, Blue is fully cured and back to running andswimming and playing with her friends.Vet-Stem's therapy is just the newest frontier in the booming field ofalternative veterinary medicine — which includes acupuncture,chiropractic and aquatic therapies and traditional Chinese herbalmedicine — an industry driven by pet owners who are increasinglywilling to do or pay whatever they can to help their ailing pets. Inthe past decade, the number of vets who completed a 156-hr. trainingcourse is given by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society(IVAS) has quadrupled. IVAS also recently added courses in herbal andfood therapy, and Tui Na, a manipulative treatment like chiropractic.According to IVAS spokeswoman Vikki Weber, 10% to 20% of the society'strainees end up quitting Western medicine altogether. "There are otherpossibilities out there besides pills or a doctor's knife," saysMitchener, a veterinary oncologist who incorporated alternativetreatments into her practise four years ago.Most progressive veterinary therapies are inspired by human healthcare. Burton Miller, who runs the Animal Wellness Center in HuntingtonStation, N.Y., became a practitioner of Eastern medicine for animalsafter suffering a skiing accident in 1996. He began reading up onalternative therapies for his injury and decided to apply the samekind of medicine to his animal patients. "I announced to my [clients]that everything I had ever told them was wrong," he says. Those petowners promptly abandoned him, but today he has a thriving practice inwhich acupuncture and homoeopathic medicines are the most commoncourses of treatment. (A veterinary visit including acupuncture withMiller costs $65 — about what a human acupuncturist in Manhattan charges.)Unlike these older, more popular therapies, Vet-Stem offers — for thetime being — better medicine to animals than any allowed for theirowners: even though it does not use controversial embryonic stemcells, the fatty-tissue stem-cell transplant has not yet secured FDAapproval for use in humans. But pets are reaping the benefits indroves. Since Vet-Stem began offering its online certification coursein January, more than 1,000 vets have signed up to take it, many atthe urging of their patients' owners. The FDA has so far approved thetreatment for animals' orthopaedic problems in tendons and ligaments,and for bone fractures and arthritis. Vet-Stem says that some of itspatients begin to feel better the same day, and most improve within aweek. About 20% see no progress at all, but the company hasn'treceived reports of negative effects and it says it didn't see any inits earlier clinical trials. Vet-Stem is now testing stem cells totreat kidney disease in cats and liver disease in dogs.The cure-all doesn't come cheap. A cycle of stem-cell treatmentgenerally costs $2,000 to $4,000, including the extraction, surgeriesand follow-up. (Canine hip-replacement surgeries, however, can beabout four times as expensive.) Robert Harman, Vet-Stem's founder,says that because of the steep price tag, he initially thought wealthyhorse owners would be his primary clientele. "Turns out there's notquite the same emotional attachment to horses as in the small-animalworld," Harman says. "It used to be if your dog got sick, you just gota new dog. Now people want the best care, and they want to pay forit." At the start of the year, Vet-Stem's patient pool was 90% horsesand 10% dogs. By the end of 2008, Harman estimates those numbers willshift to 60% dogs, 10% cats and 30% horses — no doubt aided byword-of-mouth praise from pet owners like Waters. "It's comforting forme to know I've done what I can to alleviate Blue's pain," Waterssays. "She loves to play so much that fixing her hip really improvedboth our qualities of life."