Monday, June 30, 2008 | Give veterinarian Robert Harman about 48 hours and a sample — roughly two tablespoons — of an animal’s fat tissue, and he will transform the goop into a healing potion of sorts.
Harman, a self-described biotechnology entrepreneur, is the founder of Vet-Stem, Inc., a Poway company using fat-derived adult stem cells to treat horses, dogs and cats with ligament tears, bowed tendons, fractures and joint disease.
The company is using technology to harness the healing power of adult stem cells, one of the most misunderstood and promising areas of regenerative medicine and modern science. Less-touted than the fiercely-debated embryonic stem cells, the adult version has the ability to morph into cells with special functions, such as the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas or the beating cells of the heart muscle. They can promote blood vessel growth in an injured area or keep alive injured cells that are at risk of dying.
“They’re remarkable,” Harman said of the adult stem cells. “They jump out and do triage at the injury site. They knit new bone here, repair new heart tissue there. Send them to a joint with bad arthritis and they’ll calm down the swelling.”
Not only is adult stem cell research not controversial, it is strongly encouraged by those who raise objections to embryonic stem cell research. Unlike the more well-known embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells have been proven to be useful for human medical treatments, such as bone marrow transplants, and they are already being used in veterinarian clinics across the country.
Here’s how Vet-Stem’s therapy works: A credentialed veterinarian makes a small incision and extracts a small amount of fat tissue from an injured animal. The sample is delivered in person or by priority overnight mail to the Vet-Stem laboratory where technicians process the sample to extract the stem cells and remove the fat.
The fat floats to the top as enzymes break down, and the regenerative stem cells — the healing stuff — that reside in the fat sink to the bottom.
Next, the concentrated stem cells are loaded into a syringe and delivered back to the veterinarian, who injects the dose directly into the injured area. That single injection can stave off further inflammation and pain in the animal, Harman said, almost eliminating the need for pain medications, which have the potential to cause liver and heart damage.
Scientifically speaking, the process works because injured tissues that are attempting to recruit natural healing cells signal the adult stem cells as they are engrafted into the treated area. In turn, the regenerative cells adjust themselves to help reconstruct the damaged tissue.
The treatment costs roughly $3,000, comparable to the price for more traditional therapies, such as a hip replacement or long-term pharmaceuticals for pain.
Any leftover concentrate is frozen in liquid nitrogen and kept in a bank for future therapies. After one year of complementary storage, Vet-Stem charges $150 a year to bank the stem cells.
The regenerative stem cell therapy, science lingo for Vet-Stem’s treatment, seems to be working.
Take Buzz, a sheepherding dog who separated his ligament from his tibia and could only walk on three legs before his injection in 2006. Today, he’s back out herding sheep.
In 2007, Bella Raca, an 8-year-old companion dog, had the regenerative therapy in both elbows to treat severe chronic arthritis. In less than two months, Bella’s owner said, she was “acting like a puppy again,” jumping up in chairs and leaping into the family sedan to go for a ride
Vet-Stem reports that more than 3,000 tendon, ligament and joint injuries in animals have been successfully treated by more than 1,500 veterinarians across the country since 2004.
Nearly 800 of those treatments have been performed this year and 1,295 veterinarians are signed up to get credentialed to perform the stem cell therapy. Harman considers the growing popularity of the company’s turn-around laboratory service as proof that people are catching on to the promise of adult stem cell therapy.
Reports about stem cell science have typically described the research as highly controversial business. But scientists and researchers at an international biotechnology conference held in San Diego this month said that’s because people often don’t distinguish between adult and embryonic stem cells.
Basically, stem cells are responsible for growth and healing in the body. The adult variety is embryo-free and can create only a specific body part, such as tissue, cartilage and bone.
Embryonic cells, however, are bits of biological potential that could give rise to many kinds of tissue in the body, potentially opening doors to treating dreaded diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s and spinal cord injuries.
Their use is controversial because creating the cells in a laboratory setting requires destroying days-old human embryos. President George Bush, for example, has blocked federal funding for most embryonic stem cell research on such grounds.
Supporters of embryonic stem cell research counter that while adult stem cells can be useful, versatile embryonic cells hold greater long-term promise.
The controversy has had a chilling effect on embryonic stem cell research advances, triggering a growing legion of researchers, including Harman, to shift their focus to adult stem cells, found in tissue, organs and fat, instead of embryos. The option could offer the best chance of realizing near-term benefits for human patients because it strikes a political middle ground.
“It’s a breakthrough,” Harman said. “We (at Vet-Stem) don’t even culture or grow cells at all.”
In addition to not being controversial, the health risks associated with Vet-Stem’s “fairly straightforward” therapy are slim, said Nancy Hampel, an El Cajon veterinarian who has used the Vet-Stem therapy for about 10 dogs at her practice since October.
“The magic is that the animal is its own donor and provides its own therapy,” she said.
Because the cells aren’t foreign to the body, engineered or manipulated in any way, there’s no chance for contamination or rejection when the isolated cells re-enter the body.
“It’s a lot like getting a blood transfusion for yourself,” Hampel said.
Hampel said she wasn’t surprised more people didn’t understand how adult stem cells work because she didn’t know anyone was using them to heal animals until she attended a Vet-Stem training and became certified last year.
“I thought everything was still very theoretical,” she said. “I had no idea it was clinically available.”
Harman, a statistician and veterinarian who specializes in preventative medicine, has a background in the biotech industry, spending more than 15 years developing human and veterinary pharmaceutical products and working for start-up cell therapy companies trying to get their products to market.
“Most of the biotech stuff is pretty damn expensive,” Harman said. “Cost and logistics shut down a lot of products.”
After taking a short semi-retirement to play polo, Harman and a partner founded Vet-Stem in 2002 after funding the research themselves and becoming “absolutely convinced” the therapy was workable and doable. Vet-Stem also offers an online credentialing course for small-animal veterinarians who want to become credentialed to offer the therapy to clients. (Equine vets don’t have to be certified). The company has 32 employees and its primary focus is providing the turnaround lab service for veterinarians.
But Harman’s convinced the therapy could be just as successful in humans and hopes Vet-Stem can become a conduit for the latest developments in human medical technology, helping to get clinical trials started soon in the United States.
“I’ve treated over 3,000 animals with virtually no side effects,” said Harman, whose clinical trial work was recently published in Veterinary Therapeutics, an industry journal. Post-treatment inflammation, while rare, is possible.
“There are no technical hurdles in using that science for humans. It just takes a lot of money and time, but it can be done and we know that already,” he said.
Outside of the U.S., human clinical trials are underway or planned in cardiovascular disease, spinal disc degeneration and gastrointestinal disorders, among others.