COLORADO SPRINGS — Macha is one of those once-in-a-lifetime pets — a tall, lean, savvy dog who lives to hunt pheasant.
In the field, the Labrador retriever is so focused that she shuns pats from her Woodland Park, Colo., owner, Tom Bulloch. "She doesn't want her line of vision obstructed," he explains.
Macha, who can run like the wind, was named after a mythological Irish goddess who was faster than any man or beast.
But four years ago Macha slowed dramatically. Stairs became difficult. After outings she was sore and had trouble getting out of her bed.
"She was only 6 years old but seemed like an elderly lady," Bulloch recalls.
His veterinarian diagnosed her problem as severe arthritis and suggested Macha be examined by veterinarian James Gaynor, of Peak Performance Veterinary Group in Colorado Springs.
Gaynor specializes in pain management and is one of only about 300 veterinarians certified nationwide to use animals' own stem cells in treatment for a variety of ailments.
"At the time I thought, 'aren't stem cells illegal or a political problem?' " Bulloch says.
In fact, they can be used for treatment of animals. The procedure does not use the controversial embryonic stem cells that have not gotten FDA approval for humans.
Gaynor, who taught at Colorado State University veterinary school for 14 years, notes: "The procedure is no silver bullet. But we are way ahead of use in humans."
Research has shown that stem cell treatment can help an animal's range of motion and alleviate certain pain. The animal's stem cells migrate to where they are needed to repair an injury, Gaynor says. The stem cells are, in essence, anti-inflammatory, and can help regenerate tissue, bone, cartilage, liver cells, heart muscle, and some nerve cells and blood vessels. Bulloch gladly paid the $1,700 medical bill.
"She loves the outdoors so much, and it was a matter of the pain and mobility."
Gaynor anesthetized Macha and extracted 30 to 90grams of fatty tissue from behind the shoulder, where it is plentiful and where she could not later lick the incision.
The tissue was sent to Vet-Stem, a pioneering company in San Diego, where the stem cells were extracted and sent back to Gaynor.
He injected them into the sedated Macha's joints less than 36 hours after it all began. (It also can be administered intravenously.) Macha had to take it easy for about a month.
"We could see a difference in 10 days," Bulloch says. "After recuperation, I told her 'Let's go hunting!' And it was truly miraculous to see her out there like she used to be."
Some dogs need only one treatment. But Macha has never been completely structurally sound. Her arthritis is severe, and like human athletes, there has been some joint stress, Bulloch notes. She seemed pain-free for 18 months.
About two years ago, she received a second treatment. This time surgery was not needed because some of the stem cells initially harvested had been banked.
Macha recently was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, usually a rapidly fatal disease. Labs and other large dogs are predisposed to it.
Stem cell therapy cannot be used to treat it. While such therapy does not cause cancer growth, Gaynor notes, it can contribute to it because it increases blood vessel growth.
Bulloch is thankful that the therapy added so much to Macha's quality of life. Without it, she would have been incapacitated at 6 years old.
"In dog years, she has had 28 additional years of being free from pain, and enjoying what she loves to do," Bulloch says.
Help for cats, horses
Stem cell research is a hot topic because it is so promising, says Jessica Quimby, a Morris Animal Foundation fellow at Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
Quimby is conducting preliminary research to see how stem cells can be used to treat the chronic kidney disease that often kills elderly cats. So far, short of kidney transplants, there are no good treatments. But researchers think stem cells can be used to counter the inflammation that leads to scarring and end-stage disease.
They take stem cells from the fat of healthy young cats and inject them in other cats; the body does not reject the cells. The extraction does not hurt the young cats, she says.
Last summer, the university created Frankie's Fund to support such research. Frankie was one of Quimby's patients, a Siamese cat who became ill with acute kidney failure and participated in a clinical trial in 2009. After the cat's death from other causes, the owner donated money to create the fund.
Horses also are receiving stem cell therapy.
Laurie Goodrich, a veterinary equine surgeon, and John Kisiday, a bioengineer, are using stem cells from the bone marrow of horses to heal injuries.
A classic example is Rio, a barrel-racing horse who received stem cells for a torn knee cartilage. Rio and her owner are back barrel racing, and recently won a big competition.
The cost of treatment runs about $2,400.
In work with horses, stem cells are harvested and grown from bone marrow rather than fat-derived stem cells. The marrow does not have a lot of stem cells, so after extraction they are treated in a lab so they multiply.
Advanced Regenerative Therapies, a Fort Collins, Colo., company, does that portion of the work.
After expansion, the cells can be injected into tendons, ligaments and joints.
"The field is vast. Researchers are looking at everything, including healing of spinal cord and brain injuries," Goodrich said. "For every tissue, there is a stem cell that the body utilizes to heal it."