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Stem cell procedure may be effective in canines

Photo by Barry Levine

Photo by Barry Levine

ALBANY -- Carolyn Cook knew that she had reached a crossroads with her golden retriever, McIntyre.

Almost crippled by a particularly aggressive and chronic form of arthritis, McIntyre had been stripped of much of the mobility and agility goldies are known for.

In fact, McIntyre had been plagued with mobility issues most of his life, beginning at six months when Cook was forced to put her beloved dog through two partial hip replacement surgeries.

Even at that young age, Cook says that McIntyre never fully rebounded, especially when compared to his brother Miller, who didn't have the same joint problems.

Now 9 years old, McIntyre had developed significant arthritis in his front elbows, especially the right, and was confined to a life largely of laying around.

"It was just painful to watch how this dog, who you know was in pain, be limited to just laying on the ground and avoiding any real movement at all," Cook said.

Spurred into action, Cook began researching any possible treatments to help McIntyre, when she came across a story about cutting-edge technology that involved the cultivation and use of stem cells as a treatment.

Encouraged, Cook took McIntyre to the University of Georgia's Veterinary School to see if they were involved in similar research or treatments.

"They hadn't even heard of it," Cook said.

She next learned of a different treatment being performed by a veterinarian in Michigan, but when she started inquiring about the procedure, was told that if something went wrong, they'd likely have to amputate at the elbow, she says.

"I just couldn't risk it," Cook said. "That wouldn't be any way to deal with his problem."

Now feeling dejected and back to square one, Cook, a retired flight attendant with family in Atlanta, caught the Atlanta Fox affiliate's broadcast one day, which featured the story of Alpharetta veterinarian Dr. Jan Hines, who had successfully used stem cell therapy to reduce and, in many cases, reverse signs of arthritis in dogs.

In an interview Friday, Hines said that he's performed the procedure on up to five dogs and called the results "quite remarkable."

"These stem cells tend to inherit the characteristics of other cells wherever they're injected," Hines said Friday from his Alpharetta office. "So when we inject them into a joint, they target the inflammation and begin to regrow the cartilage."

Hines witnessed first-hand the benefits of stem-cell therapy in humans, which is what prompted him to translate that into his veterinary practice.

With treatment banned in humans in the U.S., Hines' granddaughter flew to Thailand to undergo stem cell therapy in an effort to treat her Lupus. With marked improvement, Hines is now using a similar method to regenerate bone and tissue in dogs.

The procedure is relatively simple, according to Hines.

First, he collects the dog's own stem cells from fat reserves stored in the abdomen and then ship's them to a lab in California where they replicate and grow the dog's own cells.

Now with 350 million more of McIntyre's stem cells, the lab then ships them back to Hines' office where he injects them into the hip, the elbows and the knees.

Since it'll take three to four months for the stem cells to grow enough cartilage to show a meaningful improvement, Hines also injects a lubricant into the joints so that the animal can enjoy an immediate improvement in mobility.

Stem cells were ushered to the forefront of the national debate during the 2004 presidential election between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Controversy swirled around the use of embryonic stem cells -- a type of stem cell that is collected from unused human embryos.

The controversy has quieted since that time as more information becomes available about alternative sources of stem cells which include bone marrow, some types of fat cells and cord blood stored in the umbilical cord. While therapy is currently banned, advances in stem cell research could lead to FDA approval for treatment in humans in the near future.

For McIntyre, there still are more steps to be taken on the road to recovery.

Follow-up shots of canine Adequan, a dog version of an anti-inflammatory used on race horses, and frequent check-ups will be the norm for the next few months, Cook says, but she's already seeing an improvement in McIntyre's ability to move.

"You can tell after just three weeks there is an improvement," she said. "He can get up easier, he's got a pep in his step and I've actually had to try and hold him back and keep him from moving around too much until the stem cells take hold."

At the lime sink in the Garden District Thursday, McIntyre did something he hasn't done in ages, Cook said, jump from the ground into the back of her SUV.

And Cook says that she's seen a difference in his alertness as well, and believes that the treatments may have improved her dog's cognitive function as well.

Hines says that the therapy should also help decrease the pain associated with McIntyre's hip joints, which will also improve his quality of life.

So what's the downside?

As with any new procedure, cost is always an issue.

But while Cook did acknowledge the price, she said it was cheaper than her dog's hip replacements.

While the U.S. government has maintained its ban on use of stem cells on humans, the government has slowly begun opening up the field for research.

Hines and Cook both say that they're hopeful that the successes found in animals through the use of stem cell therapy will show the country that it may also work in humans.

"I think it's going to happen, it's just a matter of time until the U.S. government does its research and opens the field up to humans," Hines said.

"If this works for McIntyre, who is to say it wouldn't help humans with their arthritis?" Cook said. "It's something exciting to think about."