Stem cells are big news – we hear about them almost every day! Although they were first identified nearly 40 years ago, we still need to understand so much more to fully unlock the potential of these biological superheroes.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are a special kind of cell that can transform into any type of mature cell, like heart cells, nerve cells and blood cells. Stem cells fall into two broad categories: embryonic stem cells and adult mesenchymal stem cells. Adult mesenchymal stem cells are the type currently used for stem cell therapy in our furry friends.
Cancer stem cells, or tumor-initiating cells, were just recently discovered. These cells are suspected to be important players in tumor growth and spread, and many cancer researchers feel they might be responsible for treatment resistance. Keep a watch out for new therapies directed specifically at cancer stem cells – they could be key to preventing cancer spread.
Stem cell therapy for dogs and cats
Stem cells were first used in veterinary medicine to treat orthopedic problems in horses. The treatments were successful, so small animal vets began using stem cell therapy for dogs with osteoarthritis. Early on, dogs had a positive response to stem cell therapy with very few, if any, side effects.
Ongoing stem cell research aims to find the best way to use these cells for orthopedic problems in pets, from arthritis to tendonitis and even bone fractures. We’re just starting to explore stem cell therapy for cats, although there is evidence that it may help cats who undergo a kidney transplant.
How are stem cells collected?
Adult mesenchymal stem cells for veterinary purposes are usually harvested from fat tissue or bone marrow. Most pet patients require sedation or general anesthesia during collection, but the procedure is quick and causes minimal discomfort.
After harvesting, laboratories isolate the stem cells from the tissue and place them in culture media. Once the cells have multiplied several times, they are collected and injected back into the patient.
How do stem cells work?
Scientists are constantly discovering new uses for stem cells, but the mechanics of how stem cells actually work are not completely understood yet. Stem cells can transform into almost any cell type, replacing damaged or lost cells, and they also release substances that have anti-inflammatory properties. While all the specifics of stem cell function are still under investigation, one thing is clear – studies show that stem cells are effective in treating many diseases.
Morris Animal Foundation’s investment in stem cell research
Morris Animal Foundation funded its first stem cell research study in 2009, and since then has been a major supporter of veterinary stem cell research. The foundation is invested in several ongoing research projects including optimizing culture techniques, determining how stem cells work and clinical trials exploring stem cell use in the treatment of specific diseases.
Morris Animal Foundation recently funded groundbreaking studies examining the behavior of cat and dog cancer stem cells. The goal of these studies is to discover new cancer treatments targeted at stem cells.
Morris Animal Foundation also has funded studies looking at stem cells to treat chronic kidney disease and asthma in cats, as well as ongoing studies looking at the use of stem cell therapy as a preventive for cruciate ligament rupture in dogs.
Although more research is needed, stem cell therapy holds promise for a wide range of diseases affecting all animal species. Morris Animal Foundation is proud to be at the forefront of animal-focused, stem cell research, emphasizing our commitment to investing in the best research by the most talented veterinary scientists in the world.