COLUMBIA — When one of Caryn Fenton's family members fell ill, she began a personal journey to find a cure.
Traditional medical treatments failed, and the problems intensified. At times the pain would subside, but it always returned. A permanent solution seemed elusive.
Fenton persevered. She refused to give up on her dog, Abbie.
More than five years ago, Abbie, who was 12 at the time, started to have problems in both of her knees. She was suffering. Fenton, whose husband owns the Columbia Pet Hospital, tried a variety of methods to ease the pain, but the medical treatments brought serious side effects. Fenton even tried acupuncture, which mitigated the problem, but never cured Abbie.
“I was really looking for something that permanently ended Abbie’s pain,” Fenton said. “I started talking to Dr. (Sherri) Russell, and we researched stem cell treatments. But those were not developed enough and too expensive at the time.”
Fenton found that the only option to treat her dog with stem cells involved sending some of the animal’s fat to California, where a company called Vet-Stem activated the cells in its labs and shipped them back to the patient’s address. The process was too expensive and there was no guarantee that there would be enough active stem cells due to the extensive time it took to ship them.
Abbie died of unrelated causes at 14. But her illness pushed Fenton, her husband and Russell to continue to research.
On Friday morning, Cami Anderson, Fenton’s 10-year-old granddaughter, was able to do what her grandma never could; treat her dog’s illness with stem cells. It will be months or years to find out whether it worked.
The procedure took place at the Columbia Pet Hospital. As an in-clinic operation, it was less complicated and, therefore, cheaper than the ones offered when Fenton’s dog was ill. Russell said it was the first one to take place in Missouri.
The patient, Ellie, is a 4-year-old Labrador Retriever that suffers from an early osteoarthritis and tendonitis of the elbow. Ellie has been ill for two years now, and the inflammations have affected her shoulder as well.
Cami stayed by Ellie's side at the clinic on Friday, hoping for a better life for her dog.
“Her legs hurt a lot," Cami said, "After we would play in the yard, she would limp and I could tell she was in pain.”
An experimental procedure
Cami’s blue eyes sparkled with expectation as she walked around her grandparents’ clinic while Ellie was in surgery. Nervous, responsible and caring, she wandered around asking for an update on the procedure..
“I was scared at first, because after she woke up from her anesthesia she went crazy,” Cami said.
Katherine Wilkie, the director of lab services with MediVet America, the company that developed a kit making this in-clinic procedure possible, led the operation at Columbia Pet Hospital.
The procedure, which Wilkie said can be applied to other animals such as cats and horses, cost $1,800 for Ellie. The price varies depending upon the individual animal.
The equipment being used allows for the operation to happen in a surprisingly small space. In a room of no more than 100 square feet, Billy Inskeep and Russell helped Wilkie while they absorbed her knowledge.
Inskeep, a veterinary technician, will be assisting Russell in the procedures that the pet hospital will offer after they are done with this first one. Russell, who will take the lead, is thrilled by the possibilities.
“This is a big advancement," Russell said. "It has a clear cost advantage, but also we are sure that the cells will be good, because we control them at all times since we don’t have to send them to the lab. For the animal it is also an advantage, as it all happens one day.”
Russell also addressed the use of embryonic stem cells, one of the most controversial aspects of the procedure. But because the tissue is taken directly from the animal she said it nullifies the embryonic cell issue.
Instead, the procedure uses adult stem cells extracted from fat. Fat has a high concentration of the cells and its collection is a lot less traumatic than its alternative, bone marrow.
Once the cells have been concentrated, Wilkie explained, tri-colored LED lights are used to activate the cells. They are then injected into the joint, where they begin to differentiate and create new tissue.
However, some argue stem cell procedure techniques aren’t developed enough to be used on in-clinic operations. Among them is Thomas Koch, a professor of biomedical sciences at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph in Canada. He said in an October interview with The Globe and Mail that isolating cells is a highly complex process that can’t be accomplished in a few steps in a veterinary clinic. Koch argues that those who are marketing these techniques “are generating a lot of hype and expectations that I think (are) unwarranted at this point in time."
Wilkie is aware of the controversy surrounding the new techniques but disagrees with them.
To Wilkie, speaking on behalf of her company, MediVet, "You can’t make a claim that it’s going to help 100 percent of the (animal) patients, but we have not seen any contrary effects. Stem cell treatment has only helped,” she said.
"She is ready"
Wilkie worked on the cells with a handbook in front of her, using it to show Russell and Inskeep what she was doing.
The atmosphere in the tiny improvised laboratory was dramatic and the tension of novelty palpable, made more so by the opera music in the background of the clinic. Wilkie joked that she began to feel the effects of the pungent smelling ethanol used to filter the solution containing the cells.
Once the cells were activated, Cami brought her dog back into the room after taking her for a walk.
“She is ready,” the girl said. “She already went to the bathroom.”
Ellie resisted her owner's pull but eventually gave in. “C’mon Ellie! I know you don’t like it," Cami said.
Cami sat next to Ellie and caressed the back of her head as the dog was given anesthesia a second time. About 45 minutes later, the procedure had been completed.
“We are all done," Russell said. "Ellie is up and around.”
“She will start improving pretty much immediately and the cells will keep creating new tissue for up to 90 days,” Wilkie said. “But the effects we expect are long-term – up to years.”
Fenton, who was unable to save her own dog more than five years earlier said this procedure is meant to prevent Ellie from having to spend the rest of her life in pain relievers like her own dog.
“Hopefully this will help other dogs in Columbia as well," she said, "as we are taking something from their body and using it to cure them.”