Fort Collins vet treats dogs, exotic animals with stem cells
March 24, 2018
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Tootle used to hate going to the vet.
The purebred dachshund didn't like the humans poking and prodding his nose with all kinds of different medicines.
But he got used to it. And his nose started to get better.
Tootle, 12, first came to the Colorado State Veterinary Teaching Hospital about a year and a half ago with a drug-resistant strain of MRSP. It's essentially the dog version of MRSA, which causes skin infections or can infect surgical wounds. Tootle also has a form of lupus, which hinders his immune system. The infection ate away at his nose and for a while he didn't get better with regular antibiotics.
Dr. Valerie Johnson, a post-doctorate fellow and researcher at the vet hospital, tried a stem cell treatment on Tootle.
He used to have nose bleeds daily, said Tootle's owner, Eva Knight, of Loveland.
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Thanks to the stem cell treatment, vets have been able to manage the infection. Tootle's nose no longer bleeds, and much of the damaged tissue grew back.
Johnson said the lab grew the stem cells from a sample of Tootle's own fat.
Her research might soon be able to help with human medicine too, Johnson said.
Stem cells already help people with osteoarthritis and big open wounds. In the future, doctors might be able to use Johnson's research to treat folks with infections caused by implanted medical devices.
"There's no treatment for that yet," Johnson said.
Johnson has primarily focused her research on dogs, studying the antimicrobial properties of stem cells and how they can be used to kill off harmful bacteria and treat chronic infections.
She's also working to treat exotic animals.
Johnson volunteers at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg. Many of the big cats, bears and wolves in the sanctuary are older and have suffered severe injuries from a lifetime of mistreatment. Johnson began treating the big cats with stem cells.
She's also treated elephants, giraffes, wolves, polar bears, lions, porcupines and more.
She typically grows the cells from fat tissue or bone marrow, she said, but when it comes to very large animals, such as elephants and giraffes, she uses blood samples.
It took a while to figure out how to grow the stem cells from blood samples, Johnson said, but they did.
"We have some that respond well and some don't respond at all," Johnson said. The animals with severe, long-term chronic injuries tend to be the ones that don't respond.
One elephant, named Lucky, did well after treatment. Lucky went from barely being able to bend its knee to having nearly full range of motion.
So far no animal has had a bad reaction to the treatment, Johnson said.
Karen Wolf, head veterinarian at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, in Tacoma, Washington, saw Johnson speak about her stem research at an annual American Association of Zoo Veterinarian conference.
A lot of people had questions for Johnson after she presented, Wolf said. She did too.
She wondered if Johnson would be able to treat her zoo's polar bear, Boris, who struggled with arthritis pain.
Johnson wanted to help. She didn't know how a polar bear would react to treatment, but she wanted to try.
Wolf's team took a small biopsy of fat from Boris, she said, and sent the sample to Johnson, who used it to grow stem cells. Johnson then hopped on an overnight flight and arrived at the zoo. They delivered the stem cells through a catheter in Boris' leg.
The procedure itself was simple, Wolf said, and Boris seems to be doing better.
At 32, Boris is an old bear. Polar bears typically live to 25 in the wild.
Wolf said he's not bounding around like he did in his younger days, but he plays more with Blizzard, another bear at the zoo and seems to be in less pain.
Johnson is working to measure that more objectively by watching videos of Boris that Wolf regularly sends.
As for Tootle, he'll have to keep making regular visits to see Johnson. His infection is manageable with the new treatment, not curable.
He doesn't seem to mind too much, though. He's grown to like the veterinary team. They give him treats when he holds still and lots of pets.