stemming the tide: stem cell therapy - part 1

Posted by Dr. Rebecca Jackson on Jul 20 2013

For this week’s blog, I was asked to write about the very interesting (and at times controversial) topic of stem cell therapy. Please know, this blog is not intended to be an all-inclusive discussion (it would take many months’ worth of blogs to keep up with the emerging data on this subject), but instead a “Beginner’s Guide” to understanding the basic ideas and possible uses of stem cell therapy in veterinary medicine.

By no means do I consider myself an expert on the topic, but hopefully you can take away a better understanding of the concept of stem cell therapy and where it appears to be going in veterinary medicine.

To start, a little clarification. At this time, stem cell therapy in veterinary medicine is most commonly (and clinically) associated with mesenchymal stem cells. These are a specialized line of cells that can be encouraged to develop into three main times of tissues; namely, muscles, tendons and cartilage. These are not cells that can be “turned into” any tissue type in the body. These cells are most commonly collected (aka: harvested) and isolated from bone marrow and fat tissue. As you can imagine, the collection is not necessarily a difficult process, but the isolation (requiring in vitro culture and selection) requires a specialized lab, and at this time, can come with a hefty price (but hey – that’s what pet insurance is for!).

Okay, so after these cells are harvested and isolated, what next? At this time, the most common use of this therapy is in orthopedic cases. In other words, these cells are used to treat conditions such as osteoarthritis and acute orthopedic injuries. The isolated cells are injected into the joint/site of injury and also are injected systemically into the body (via an intravascular injection). Theoretically, these cells are then able to help the area heal and regain normal structure and/or function.

There have been some in-house units developed so that clinics can harvest and isolate their own mesenchymal stem cells. The main difference is that this is a mixed population of cells that is isolated, whereas in the laboratory setting they are able to culture a very specific cell line. At this point in time, we don’t know if this difference is clinically relevant. In other words, does this really matter? And does stem cell therapy really work? In tomorrow’s post, I’ll tackle that all-important question…

To more waggin’ and purrin’. rwkj

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