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Scientists discovered how to extract stem cells from human embryos in the early 2000s. Stem cell research got many people excited but there was a lot of controversy and suspicion surrounding this breakthrough. We haven’t heard much about stem cell research since then, but there are some medical professionals are using the technology: veterinarians.
More than 12,000 animals have been treated with stem cell therapy in the U.S. since 2004. The trend started with racehorses but is now available to domestic animals.
The industry is worth $20 million a year – that’s small compared to the $2 billion dollars Americans spent on pharmaceutical drugs for their pets in 2014. But the industry is expanding fast. There are three companies offering stem cell therapy for pets. A new facility opened in New York in August.
Tony Yuan owns a company called Mobile Stem Care in San Antonio. He says business is good because a lot of people are willing to spend serious money on their pets.
Roger Burton is one of his customers. A long-time hunter, Burton noticed that his Lewellin Setter, Reece, was limping out on the fields. He had never really thought about stem cell therapy for animals, but his doctor convinced him that the risks were minimal.
Burton was impressed with the results of the treatment. “Since the next day I have not seen her struggle at all, this is one happy dog,” Burton says. “She was on two forms of pain reliever, we just took her off of it and all I saw was progress.”
Burton paid upwards of a thousand dollars for the treatment. “I haven’t run across a situation yet where I haven’t done a procedure because of cost,” Burton says. HIs veterinarian, doctor Rachel Smith says she’s never seen patients so willing to spend money on their pets – just think of memory foam dog bed and pet health insurance.
Tony Yuan says that sentiment translates into medical procedures, so the margins for animal stem cell therapy are good. He says it would take him about $20 to bring stem cell therapy to humans.
Doug Frantz teaches bio-medical engineering at the University of Texas San Antonio. He says it will probably be another 10 years before humans can be treated with this type of therapy – and that’s a good thing.
“There’s a lot of regulations when you’re making that jump from veterinary medicine to medicine for humans,” Frantz says, “You really don’t have to have that regulation for animals because the FDA is not really interested in regulating those to that level.”
For the FDA to approve a drug or medical procedure for humans, it has to be better than the existing gold standard. For animals, the procedure has to just be proven safe. Scientists around the world are running hundreds of clinical trials proving the effectiveness of stem cell therapy in humans – and that is going to take a while.
That doesn’t stop people like Roger Burton from daydreaming about getting the same procedure as his dog. “I have a torn meniscus in one of my knees and I would love to have it done today,” Burton says.
But that’s not going to happen anytime soon without FDA approval.