Old Dog, New Trick

Nearly crippled dogs are suddenly walking, even running again. And there's hope that it will work on humans, too.

When you hear stem cells, you may instantly think controversy. Embryonic stem cell research has been fiercely debated because those cells can be derived only from human embryos.

But what we're talking about here is taking adult stem cells from your own body. It's already being done with great success in horses, cats and dogs.

Man's best friend often shares some of man's worst ailments.

Hali, a 12-year-old golden retriever mix is helping to blaze a trail in cutting edge medicine.

"I've seen animals that have gone from barely being able to walk to trotting and running down the driveway," said Dr. Cheryl Adams.

Adams is a pioneer of stem cell therapy. One of only two vets in Illinois certified to do it, she's treated 30 dogs so far.

She extracted stem cells from River, an 8-year-old German Shepherd mix who may look familiar because of how he got his name.

In the winter of 2001, the lost pup was trapped out on the ice of the Chicago River.

The man who led the rescue, Chicago Police Lieutenant Jim Gantz, wound up adopting him and naming him, of course, River.

"He's just been a terrific dog, he's the best," Gantz said.

But over the years, River developed osteoarthritis and hip dysplasia. So now, Adams is removing fat from River's abdomen.

The vials are then packed up and shipped overnight to a company called Vet Stem in San Diego. The fat cells are put into a centrifuge that separates the stem cells. And two days later, they're re-injected into the dog's joints.

"This science actually gives a chance to rejuvenate tissue, tendon, ligament and bone. So the dog can actually get better," said Gantz. "It really is cutting edge stuff, it's pretty exciting stuff."

It costs about $3,000, but Adams says River's results, as in most cases, have been spectacular and almost immediate.

"His energy level went through the roof, and we increased his range of motion by 20 degrees on his right hip," said Adams.

As hopeful and exciting as this is for canines, imagine if they could do it for humans. Well, you won't have to imagine much longer. It's already in the works.

Vet Stem is already testing treatments for repairing damaged livers, kidneys and hearts in dogs and cats.

The hope is someday soon, stem cells will not only help humans suffering from arthritis, but also stroke and heart attack victims, maybe even regenerate damaged spinal cords.

It's a hope made all the more real by the long-term success of Hali, the golden retriever. Two years after being treated, Hali is still a different dog. And her owner, a neurosurgeon, is a true believer that the day is coming when stem cells will help many of us.

"She's done remarkable. I mean here's a dog who couldn't go up and down the stairs, who didn't want to walk, now goes up and down the stairs and barks every morning at 4:30 to go to the park," said her owner.

Experts say adult stem cell therapy for humans is about a decade off in the U.S., although it's already being done in some other countries. This treatment is not for every dog or cat. Those with cancer or some other conditions are not considered good candidates. But those that are have seen some incredible results.
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