Danny Klein, bassist for the J. Geils Band, paid $5 to an animal shelter for an abandoned 2-year-old German shepherd. Two years later, he paid about $3,000 for stem cell injections to treat the dog for severe arthritis.
“Any expense is worth the expense when my dogs are involved. They’re like my children,” said Klein, 66, speaking from his Hyde Park home. His dog, Harlow, has come a long way since her previous owner tossed her out of a moving car.
Banking on devoted pet owners such as Klein, entrepreneurs have built a flourishing market of veterinary treatments that include pet massage, acupuncture, and pricey stem cell treatments. Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have recently formed a company to break into the small but growing pet stem cell market.
Veterinarian Sue Casale at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston performed Harlow’s treatment in 2009 – one of about 10 orthopedic stem cell procedures she has done in the past four years. “Every week, I’ve got people coming in asking about stem cells — people who have read about it, or heard about it, and are interested.”
Casale performed her first stem cell treatment in 2008, when Carole Moore, 54, of Boxford, asked to try the experimental procedure on her aging dog, Sara. The nearly 13-year-old pointer-Irish wolfhound mix, who died of cancer a year later, was struggling to walk with severely arthritic hips.
Moore had tried water therapy, massage, and acupuncture for the dog but was not seeing the results she wanted. She found a company online, California-based Vet-Stem, that would extract millions of stem cells from a sample of Sara’s fat.
Since its formation in 2002, Vet-Stem has credentialed nearly 4,000 veterinarians in the United States and Canada to use those stem cells to treat orthopedic conditions in animals. Forty-eight of those veterinarians, including Casale, work in Greater Boston.
About half of the company’s patients are dogs and about half are horses, said Robert Harman, chief executive of Vet-Stem. Other companies providing similar services include MediVet America and Stemlogix.
At first, Casale was skeptical about the promise of stem cells.
“I think I still am to a certain extent,” she said. According to Casale, there is no direct scientific evidence that stem cell injections help regrow cartilage in arthritic canine joints. But she said all of her clients report seeing varying degrees of improved mobility and well-being in their dogs. And, she said, it appears to do no harm.
“I think of it as a choice, a modality that has the potential to help,” she said.
Many dog owners believe the stem cells deliver on their potential.
“We noticed a difference immediately. It was really astonishing,” said Moore, who thought Sara appeared able to get up, walk, and run with less stiffness.
Klein, on the other hand, saw only a mild improvement for Harlow but enough that he may repeat the treatment. “I wouldn’t say it was night and day. She did limp less after a while.”
Usually, Casale counsels her clients to try more conventional, cheaper, and proven therapies first, if they can. For Harlow, the only other option would have been risky and difficult surgery to replace her elbows — the joints below her armpits — which had been damaged by advanced arthritis. Before performing stem cell injections, Casale tries to help dog owners maintain realistic expectations. The treatment, which includes the surgery to harvest the animal’s fat, starts at around $2,000.
Canine arthritis often occurs in dog breeds genetically prone to malformed joints that create unhealthy friction. Casale said she is not sure whether the treated dogs do grow new cartilage, but without major reconstructive surgery, the joint would eventually grind down any new tissue, too. In fact, many owners like Moore report the treatment’s effects seem to wear off after about six or seven months.
Biomedical engineer Glenn Gaudette and his colleagues at WPI have created a technology they hope can make stem cell therapies longer-lasting — and cheaper. On June 1, the group launched a tiny company called VitaThreads to develop a biodegradable thread that can be coated with stem cells.
In theory, a surgeon could anchor the thread in the joint and keep stem cells — normally 3 million to 4 million cells injected in a liquid solution — from floating away with time or movement. If the same clinical results could be achieved with fewer stem cells, treatment costs could drop dramatically, Gaudette said.
“Our top question is do we improve cell retention by the local tissue and the second question is does it result in a functional improvement in the animal,” Gaudette said.
VitaThreads is preparing for clinical trials of the threads in dogs and horses later this year.
The FDA has not approved any stem cell treatments for commercial use in humans. The veterinary stem cell market, however, enjoys much looser regulation.
Gaudette said he hopes that testing their product in the veterinary market could position VitaThreads to serve human patients if stem cell therapies are approved in the future.
In the meantime, animal lovers like Moore and Klein continue to feed the market for innovative veterinary treatments.
Klein is considering another round of stem cell treatments for Harlow once her arthritis worsens again. The stem cells, he said, are a bargain compared with a recent $6,000 operation to repair another pet dog’s ruptured disc.
“With all I spend on them,” Klein said, “I ought to call them my thoroughbreds.”