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Increasing Use of Stem Cells in Veterinary Medicine
Pet owners can be willing to go to great lengths to care for their companions. Thanks to rapidly improving medical advancements, along with more reasonable pricing, animals are able to receive benefits from many different medications and therapies. Doting pet owners can spend large amounts of money on diagnostics and treatments for their pets. As more and more people begin to view their pets as family or children, rather than “just pets” the amount of money spent on animal health care will continue to increase.

Stem cell therapies offer a great deal of promise for treating many diseases and injuries with no current acceptable therapies. However, research in the use of stem cell therapy is still very new, and very few treatments have received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Most stem cells considered for therapeutic use are called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which can mature into a many different types of specialized cells. In humans, the FDA has clearly stated that MSC are considered a drug, and therefore cannot be used therapeutically until they are approved by the government, except under specific conditions.

One reason why stem cell therapies are not widely available in humans, and why their use is controversial in animals, is the potential for serious adverse side effects. These adverse effects can even include the development of tumors in the patient, which can certainly be considered more severe than, say, a torn ligament. Stem cell therapy has not yet been well-studied, and adverse reactions are not fully understood. This means that practitioners do not have effective protocols to successfully prevent adverse reactions available.

The most common MSC therapies used in veterinary medicine involve treatment of injuries in horses and arthritis in dogs and cats. Injuries to the legs, including the bone, joints, tendons, and ligaments, are very serious concerns to horses. If a horse is not able to properly support its weight on all four legs, this can cause permanent damage. Often times, the recommended course of action for a badly injured horse is euthanasia. MSC therapy, even though it is still experimental, is a much more pleasant option for loving horse owners, as well as for potentially valuable thoroughbred racers. Pet cats and dogs that develop arthritis as they advance in age can also benefit from stem cell therapy. Increased mobility and decreased pain have been reported after MSC therapy. As many pet owners see their pets as children, being able to reduce pain through stem cell therapy is very tempting.

In animals, however, there are no clear guidelines regarding the use of stem cell therapies. This gives pet owners and veterinarians an opportunity to try experimental therapies on animals, such as horses, dogs, and cats. Previous studies have backed up the benefits of stem cell therapy in animals. In 2007, a study showed improvement of osteoarthritis symptoms in dogs that received treatment with MSCs. Two separate studies also showed healing in bones, ligaments, and tendons, as well as a reduced likelihood of re-injury, in horses after MSC therapy.

One problem with the studies conducted in veterinary settings is that very few are properly controlled. Animal owners go to clinics in hopes of getting treatment for their companions, and are not always willing to have their pet potentially be given a placebo. Veterinarians must be willing to treat the animal as requested. Properly controlled studies are important, though, as the results are more easily interpreted, and could potentially even be translated to human therapeutic use. Veterinary specialists are beginning to conduct properly controlled studies, and are working to ensure that the data obtained is usable both in animal therapeutics as well as human therapeutics.

While the use of stem cell therapies in veterinary medicine has shown promising results, and proper trials are beginning, there is some concern in the community about the future of MSC therapy in animals. The FDA is planning to issue new guidelines regarding the use of stem cell-based therapeutics in animals. If animal MSCs are labeled as drugs, clinical trials would have to be conducted and approval granted before MSCs could be used in animals legally. Changes in the FDA’s guidelines regarding MSC therapy in animals could hamper research currently being conducted, in addition to leaving many pets, and their owners, with fewer options available for treating injuries and other health problems.

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