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Would You Enter Your Cat Into a Veterinary Research Study?

My cat has chronic gingivostomatitis and could be in a stem-cell research study for it; before I agreed to anything, though, I gathered information.

Lisa Richman  |  Apr 17th 2015


Would you let your cat participate in a clinical trial for a new medical treatment?

If my cat had a terminal disease and the trial held the possibility of a cure, then absolutely. But what if the condition isn’t life threatening? What then?

I faced that question a few weeks ago when a friend sent me a news release from the Winn Feline Foundation announcing the results of a grant Winn had given to the University of California at Davis to study a non-life-threatening disease my cat happens to have: chronic gingivostomatitis.

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Maxwell was diagnosed with gingivostomatitis as a kitten.

My Siamese, Maxwell, has an immune condition where the tissues in his mouth are overly sensitive to the plaque that forms on his teeth. It’s chronic and painful, and his gums are always red and inflamed. Many cats with this condition have had all their teeth removed. Maxwell still has a few, but the number decreases each year.

UC Davis has developed a stem cell therapy they say “holds great promise for routine treatment” for cats suffering from gingivostomatitis. It’s near completion, too. And although it’s not directly life-threatening, a cat could still end up being euthanized because of it, especially in a shelter situation. Not only is treatment costly, the condition is so painful some may determine the quality of life is too poor and euthanization is the best option.

So, wow. A possible cure for this disease using stem cell therapy? Sounds great! Sounds exciting! Sounds kinda scary.

That’s why I reached out to one of the men leading the study at UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Boaz Arzi. Here’s what I learned:

1. What are stem cells?

Stem cells are like college students who haven’t yet declared a major. They’re “unspecialized.” And they’re also like rabbits: They can reproduce –- a lot. But probably the coolest thing about them is that under certain circumstances they can change into whatever your body needs at that time.

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A suspension of stem cells. Photo: Shutterstock.

2. Stem cells fall into two main categories

Embryonic stem cells come from embryos. They are completely blank slates. They can be made into any type of cell at all — a skin cell, a fat cell. Not only has their use caused an ethical firestorm, it turns out they aren’t so great at treating disease, either: They also have the potential to form cancer. Current trials do not use embryonic stem cells to seek cures.

Adult stem cells are another matter entirely. We all have adult stem cells inside us. They’re the ones sitting by, waiting to spring into action to repair damage when it occurs in our bodies. They’re in the gut, in our bone marrow, and even our fat. (Hey, wait –- a good use for fat? Cool.)

Stem cells inside the gut and bone marrow will divide, creating new cells to repair or replace worn out or damaged tissues. It happens naturally. And it happens a lot -– inside you and your cat, on a regular basis.

3. Don’t confuse stem cell therapy with gene therapy. (Hint: Both use stem cells.)

Stem cell therapy is an evolution of an older type of treatment — cell therapy. Cell therapy, by definition, works at a cellular level to replace or repair something in your body that’s damaged or diseased. And it’s been around a lot longer than you think.

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Blood ready for transfusion. Photo: Shutterstock.

Blood transfusion is cell therapy at its most basic level, replacing blood that you’ve lost. The concept’s been around since the late 1600s, when the first blood transfusion occurred — between dogs. Each year, almost 16 million people in the U.S. alone rely on blood transfusion. “This technique has saved countless lives, both human and animal,” says Dr. Arzi.

Gene therapy, however -– that’s still experimental. With gene therapy, the stem cells are recoded to carry out a mission: Replace unhealthy cells with healthy ones. And since they’re rewriting stuff on a DNA level, they need to be inserted that way, too.

Back in the early 2000s, several kids with an immune disease called SCID (remember The Boy in the Plastic Bubble?) were given gene therapy that was supposed to replace nonfunctioning immune cells with healthy ones. Doctors used a virus as the delivery system because viruses can penetrate into a cell’s DNA.

It worked, and shockingly fast, too. All 17 of the kids began developing nice, healthy immunities. Which was great. Until some of them also began developing leukemia. They ended up trading one disease for another.

The culprit was the delivery system: the virus. Scientists have developed a way to turn the virus off, rendering it harmless. But MD Anderson cautions that there is a cancer risk if the virus is used incorrectly.

4. Is stem cell therapy safe?

Much safer than gene therapy. There is no genetic manipulation of your stem cells involved at all. As with all medical therapies, there is minor risk involved: contamination of the culture as the stem cells are grown, infection at the injection site, etc. But these are very small risks, on par with the ones you take if you were to get a flu shot.

5. Do you harvest stem cells from my pet for his treatment?

Most do. The cells of choice are stem cells that reside within adipose, or fat tissue.

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Cat receiving therapy. Photo: Shutterstock.

The stem cells are then removed from the fat sample and grown in a culture. “When we first harvest the adipose tissue, the concentration of stem cells is very low –- from 0.7 percent to five percent,” says Dr. Arzi. Growing the number of stem cells until there are enough to make a difference is a critical step in the process.

“Stem cells from adipose tissue are wonderful immune modifiers,” adds Arzi. “Because of this, they hold the potential to treat many chronic diseases for which we currently have no cures.” Like gingivostomatitis, a condition where the tissues in the mouth are always painfully inflamed.

And when you inject robustly healthy stem cells into a cat suffering from gingivostomatitis, the ability these stem cells have to calm the inflammation is evident.

“This opens a host of possibilities for curing other inflammation-related diseases, both in cats and in humans,” Dr. Arzi said. Diseases such as irritable bowel disease and osteoarthritis. “A treatment for Crohn’s disease is already in clinical trials on humans,” he added.

6.  What disease is veterinary research working to cure, and can my pet participate?

Yes, if your pet meets the requirements. In the UC Davis area, they’re looking for pets to participate in their clinical trials for inflammatory bowel disease in dogs and gingivostomatitis in cats. Colorado State University in Fort Collins is hosting a study on kidney disease. Click the links below to learn more:

So, going full circle, I’ll ask again what I asked in the beginning: Would you give your pet an experimental treatment? My answer after speaking with Dr. Arzi: Yes. I would.

What about you? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

Read more about cats and science by Lisa Richman:

About Lisa Richman: Writer, director, pilot, foodie, cat person. When she’s not on set, this director of film and video can usually be found taking photos of cats (and food) with her trusty Nikon, or cruising aloft at 3,000 feet. She’s cat mom to an opinionated Tonkinese, a hearing-impaired Siamese, and a feline fashionista. She’s also the owner of a recently launched food blog, and the Cat Writer’s 2014 Entertainment Blog, A Tonk’s Tail.