By AUDREY INGRAM, Times Herald Staff Writer
At 8 years old, Wrinkle was done playing. The black dog had severe hip dysplasia, an abnormal formation of the hip socket that causes painful arthritis and can lead to lameness. After eight months of laser treatments, Wrinkle began interacting more with his family, owner Sammi Elliott said. But she could tell he was still in pain. So in October, Wrinkle became one of the first two dogs to undergo stem-cell therapy with veterinarian Rexanne Struve at Veterinary Associates of Manning.
Wrinkle’s hip-ball joint was not properly set, Struve explained — as a result, he wore the cartilage down until his hip joints were grinding bone-on-bone. Laser treatments cut down pain and inflammation by stimulating the mitochondria — the energy producers — in all of a body’s cells, Struve added. But stem cells are the body’s actual repair cells. In stem-cell therapy, the animal’s fat is removed, and those cells are stimulated and reintroduced back into the body, where they actually produce new cartilage and tissue, she continued. The repairs will never be perfect, she said — but they will make the injuries more comfortable and functional.
The initial procedure to remove the stem cells takes between four and five hours. The veterinarian opens a 1½-inch incision just under the bottom of the dog’s ribs. She removes about one-third of an ounce of fat from the falciform ligament that connects the liver to the body wall. The one-third ounce of Wrinkle’s fat contained nearly 1 billion stem cells, 98 percent of which were active. Enzymes are added to the cells and activated by specific wavelengths, then injected back into the dog’s joints or into a vein near an area of inflammation — a much quicker procedure than the cell removal. The whole process — removal, activation and reinjection — can all be completed in one day, Struve said.
Half of Wrinkle’s cells were flown to MediVet Biologics in Kentucky to be cryofrozen — when the dog starts exhibiting symptoms of painful arthritis again, Struve can call the lab in Kentucky and have the cells flown to Manning overnight to be reinjected into the dog, which will restart the healing process. Stem-cell therapy is a relatively new procedure, Struve said. The veterinary world has been exploring the therapy for four years. Current research shows that it can take up to three years after receiving stem-cell therapy for a dog to start to regress, Struve said. She expects the acceptance and use of the therapy to grow, particularly among owners of bigger dog breeds, such as Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, golden retrievers and Great Danes, which are more prone to arthritis. Often, a dog’s organs can be perfectly healthy, but arthritis causes the dog so much pain that its owner feels a need to euthanize the animal. Such was the case with another of Elliott’s dogs, a 14-year-old German shepherd-Rottweiler mix named Jade. The loss was heartbreaking, Elliott said, and when Wrinkle started exhibiting the same pain, she jumped on the chance to try laser therapy. After eight months of this therapy, she was one of the first to try stem-cell therapy, which she cites as a resounding success. “I didn’t want to lose another animal because of something that could be fixed,” Elliott said.
The 41-year-old animal lover is a volunteer and foster-care provider for Animal Rescue of Carroll. Raised in Coon Rapids, she returned to the Carroll area about three years ago. Elliott has owned the now-sleek Wrinkle since he was 8 weeks old. He showed up on the South Dakota Native American reservation where Elliott was teaching about a week after her best friend was killed. At the time, he was mangy and had no fur on his face — he earned his name for the wrinkles that covered his head instead. Wrinkle now jumps around to greet new friends and doesn’t hesitate when it is time to leap in or out of a car, Elliott said. Before the therapy, he couldn’t stand for long, and he bowed his legs — now, he can sit squarely.
Struve has now completed stem-cell therapy for five dogs, with a sixth in the wings, she said. The therapy is an investment — $1,700 for a small animal and $2,200 for a large animal, as well as lab work leading up to the procedure and about $150 per year in storage costs. In the future, it could be a common practice to have stem cells collected and processed from a young animal while it is already under anesthesia to be spayed or neutered, she said. Ten years and $1,500 later — from storage costs — the cells could be reinjected to tackle a number of ailments — not a bad trade, considering the cost of pain medication, she added.
The phrase “stem cells” often has elicited controversy, but that is because scientists thought very young embryonic cells were needed, Struve said. They have since realized that older stem cells are effective — there is also no age at which a dog is too old to have the procedure done, unless there is a concern that the animal would die under anesthesia. “There are no side effects, only side benefits,” Struve said. At worst, an animal could simply not respond to the therapy, though that has not been the case so far at Struve’s clinic.
The veterinarian invested about $17,000 in the stem-cell-therapy equipment. Payback is slow, but the equipment does not need to be in every veterinary clinic, Struve said. In March, she plans to reach out to other clinics in the area for referrals. She doesn’t want to take patients away from other veterinarians, she stressed, but her lab can provide the stem-cell therapy separately from regular veterinary care. She does not foresee a need for a local storage facility. Currently, stem cells in animals are primarily used to treat arthritis and joint injuries, but veterinarians have only brushed the “tip of the iceberg” in their knowledge of stem cells, Struve said.