Has Stem Cell Surgery Helped With Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs?

Elderly German shepherds are prone to degenerative myelopathy.
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Stem cells can differentiate into many tissue types to induce repair and regeneration, but the research for stem cells to treat degenerative myelopathy is still in the early stages, with inconclusive results. No cure exists for canine degenerative myelopathy, but if your dog is experiencing back-end weakness, consult with your dog's veterinarian to help slow the progression.

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a slow-progressing disease that causes dogs to lose mobility. It is eventually terminal. The nerves of the spinal cord are protected by myelin sheath; as degenerative myelopathy progresses, the myelin breaks down and nerves of the spinal cord begin degenerating. Symptoms include weakness of the hind legs or rear end, tail limpness, difficulty raising off the ground, loss of coordination, and trouble positioning to defecate. In the later stages of degenerative myelopathy, an affected dog experiences paralysis and incontinence. Degenerative myelopathy is usually diagnosed in large breeds. German shepherds are the most commonly affected breed.

Growing Stem Cells

The American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation funded a 2009 study by Dr. Richard Vulliet, who treated dogs with their own stem cells. In this study, Vulliet extracted adult bone marrow cells from the affected dogs. The study had limitations. Few stem cells are found in bone marrow cells, so bone marrow cells are transferred to a culture dish and kept under conditions whereby only stem cells would grow from the tissue. A large number of stem cells are necessary for treatment, but dogs with degenerative myelopathy produce even less stem cells than dogs without DM.

Procedure and Results

The Vulliet study's cultured stem cells were collected and injected into the dogs' forearms intravenously. The theory was that cells might travel to the lungs and migrate to affected areas of the spine, stabilizing the disease. The goal of the procedure was to stop the progression so dogs diagnosed early with DM would not get worse. Vulliet treated four dogs with DM. Of the four, one showed no improvement, one showed mild improvement and two of the dogs had obvious improvement.

Current Treatment

Exercise in the early stages of the disease helps build tone and improves circulation. Vitamins C and B, as well as omega-3 fatty acid supplements, can help slow the breakdown of myelin sheath. Since there seems to be an autoimmune response, corticosteroids are sometimes administered to suppress the immune system. The current medications of choice to reduce progression of the disease is aminocaproic acid and N-acetylcysteine.