Kula veterinarian offering in-house stem cell therapy

Before undergoing regenerative stem cell therapy in November, a 5-year-old Newfoundland named Bella had been on medication for most of her life.

A congenital issue that affects about 25 percent of her breed left 138-pound Bella walking with a limp and unable to keep up with her brother, Ollie, on their twice-daily walks at Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area, said her owner, Art Terry of Kula.

“We were at the point of being hopeless,” he said. “She’d been progressing to where she couldn’t walk anymore. I couldn’t take her to the park. She used to hobble around the house.”

Since the stem cell therapy, “you can’t believe it’s the same dog,” Terry said. “I had to stop her chasing cars a couple of times at Polipoli park.”

Bella was the first patient to receive the therapy at Animal Care Hospital and Wellness Center in Kula. Veterinarian Dennis Brown said that the veterinary center is the only one on Maui using the MediVet America in-house stem cell therapy, although other clinics may do similar therapy by using FedEx overnight delivery to send fat removed from an animal to the Mainland for processing and return.

When he did that for a stem cell procedure on a horse several years ago, it didn’t work for the animal’s injury, Brown said.

But at an American Veterinary Association conference in Chicago over the summer, he learned that veterinarians could buy the equipment and do the stem cell activation in their own clinics.

“It was just a matter of hours,” Brown said. “It could be right back in the animal again.

“Cells start to die right away after you take them out of the animal once the blood supply gets removed from the tissue. It’s much better if we can do it right then. There’s a much better harvest, a higher number of viable stem cells.”

Brown said that the procedure has been proved to be successful for arthritis and hip dysplasia in animals, although it has also been used to try to treat other conditions.

“It’s kind of time consuming, but it’s not dangerous,” he said. “It’s something that’s pretty safe. It doesn’t put the animal at much risk at all.

“We’re fired up about it.”

After the procedure Nov. 8 for Bella, Brown performed stem cell therapy procedures in February on a cat with autoimmune disease, a pig that had broken its back in a fall when it was younger, and a dog suffering from severe arthritis and hip dysplasia.

The procedure involves removing about 2 tablespoons of fat, with the animal under anesthesia for about 15 minutes, said Carole Spangler Vaughn, owner of MediVet Hawaii.

She said it takes about three hours to process the fat in the clinic, separating stem cells from the fat and activating the stem cells before they are returned into the animal, either by injection into the affected area or intravenously.

“We know, from all the human research, stem cells have the ability to find damaged, worn-out areas in the body,” Spangler Vaughn said. “We have technology to allow the veterinarians to process the fat right in the clinic, so they’re getting the freshest cells.”

In addition to Brown’s clinic in Kula, the procedure is being done at some veterinary clinics on the Big Island, Kauai and Oahu, Spangler Vaughn said.

Although the procedure has been done since 2005, “not a lot of people know about it,” she said.

“The thing we know most about is the orthopedic applications like arthritis,” she said, estimating a “better than 95 percent chance of improvement” in such cases.

Using the procedure for other conditions, such as lupus or kidney disease, is “more experimental, but we’re seeing some pretty good results,” Spangler Vaughn said.

“It’s exciting because a lot of times it’s pets people love and they have no choice,” she said. “They’re at the point where we have to put them to sleep because they’re so sick and so miserable. Stem cell offers some hope. Because you’re taking cells out of the same animal, the risk is low. It’s an extra tool that people can try.

“We have never had an animal get sick or die from the stem cells.”

Kihei resident Peggy Sullivan said that her 13-year-old dog Daisy, a 70-pound golden retriever and black Labrador mix, had been having trouble standing up before she had the stem cell procedure done Feb. 19.

Daisy had been diagnosed with severe arthritis and hip dysplasia, Sullivan said.

“It was getting to the point I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Sullivan said. “I had to do something.”

Even though Brown told her it would likely be two to three months before she saw a difference, Sullivan said she could tell the procedure had helped Daisy less than a month later.

Before the therapy, “she would get so discouraged; she would lay back down. She’d put her head down,” Sullivan said.

“That doesn’t happen anymore,” she said. “Even if she doesn’t get any better than she is now, I’m happy.”

Sullivan estimated the procedure cost about $3,000 for Daisy.

Spangler Vaughn said costs vary, depending on the clinic and the lab tests or X-rays an animal may need as part of the procedure.

Sullivan learned about the procedure when she was taking Daisy to the veterinarian. Sullivan was having trouble getting Daisy out of the vehicle and Terry tried to help. He told Sullivan about the results of stem cell therapy on his dog Bella.

Terry said Bella had been on medication since she was 6 months old when she started “sitting up like a chipmunk.”

“Her front elbow was hurting so much she couldn’t put it on the ground,” he said.

Since undergoing the stem cell procedure, Bella no longer needs the daily injection of anti-inflammatory medicine that was costing about $1,000 a year, Terry said. Just two years of savings on medicine would cover the $2,000 cost of the procedure, he said.

“Bella is doing better than we ever had any hope of her doing,” he said. “It’s amazing. She’s got a liveliness to her eyes. Instead of putting medicine in to treat it, we have actually stopped the cause.”

Bella now goes on walks with Ollie, the family’s other Newfoundland, who has the same father as Bella.

“This stem cell thing has just been a godsend,” Terry said. “They told me 20 to 60 days would have the maximum benefits. I think she’s better now than she was at day 60.

“I see her running now. She never ran before.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.