VETERINARY medicine is becoming ever more advanced – stem cell transplants and bone grafts for pets are now a reality.
The Veterinary Tissue Bank is one of only two places in the world that stores animal tissue for transplants and the only one in Europe, and I was invited to see the facility near Chirk.
Set in a converted barn in quiet countryside surrounding, the old-fashioned look of the building disguises the hi-tech work that goes on within.
The first stem-cell growth procedure for a dog took place last week in the compact but well-equipped laboratory.
Peter Myint, formerly of Wrexham and now living in Chirk, is the co-founder of the tissue bank.
Mr Myint, who worked as a vet for 20 years before going into research, said: “This is the first time the stem cell procedure will take place here. It’s pretty pioneering stuff.
“Basically, what happens is the vet will take a small sample of fat from the affected animal and they will send it to us. What we then do is isolate the stem cells and then expand them until there are about five to 10 million cells.
“They are then sent back to the vet for use.”
The procedure, which is no more invasive than a blood test, is used to target canine osteoarthritis. The stem cells are injected right into the affected site, such as an arthritic shoulder joint, where they get to work.
The tissue bank has also been working on bone grafts for some time.
Mr Myint said: “We moved here four years ago, after vet John Innes, from Chester Gates in Cheshire, and I realised there was a need for the tissue bank.
“We accept bone tissue from donor animals with the consent of their owners, much as families of people can release their organs for organ transplant after death.
“The reason we started developing bone grafts is because there’s a real problem with dogs and cats that suffer from trauma, breaks and fractures in that if they lose bone, it is difficult to replace it.”
Typically, a vet will try to take bone from another part of the affected animal, which is not easy if you are dealing with a little dog like a Yorkshire terrier or a cat, and involves pain, invasive surgery and a relatively long timescale.
Mr Myint said: “With a bone graft, we can replace the missing bone at the trauma site. Growth factors in the graft will help it heal.
“In the end it is re-absorbed by the body as it is replaced by the animal’s own newly grown bone.”
The grafts can be as tiny as a grain of dust enabling vets to inject them directly, or large enough to act as an internal splint.
Because they are prepared through a rigorous demineralisation and cleaning process, the samples are essentially inert and will not be rejected by the dog or cat’s immune system.
Mr Myint said: “As long as you have the same species, it’s no problem. And once the sample is treated, it can be stored at room temperature for five years.”
The first recipient of a feline bone graft in the UK was a two-year-old cat called Merlin from Liverpool.
Dubbed “Frankencat” by the national press, he is still alive and healthy after being hit by a car in an accident which shattered his front leg.
The difficult part, as in human organ transplants, concerns the number of donors available.
Just as there are never enough human hearts or livers available to help the sick and ailing, the Veterinary Tissue Bank runs out of bone graft samples due to demand.
Finding donors is a delicate process.
Mr Myint said: “It’s a difficult subject. We operate under ethical guidelines. Samples can only be taken with an owner’s written consent, and there is no money involved. We don’t charge and we don’t ‘buy’ samples.
“When a pet dies, the owner is distressed. Vets don’t want to raise the subject. In fact, it might be the last thing an owner wants to consider.
“With cats especially there is a problem, because donors have to fulfil certain medical criteria which includes being vaccinated, and many people don’t vaccinate their cats.”
Mr Myint just wants owners to be aware that cat and dog tissue donor cards do exist, and they can temper the grief caused by the death of a pet.
He said: “Any death of a pet is a loss, but there is something positive here. One donor animal can help others. A single donation can reach 50 to 60 other animals.
There can be comfort in that.”
The results can be startling. Mr Myint showed me a picture of a chihuahua whose front leg bones had been so badly damaged that a three or four centimetre section was missing.
With a bone graft and metal plate in place, the radius and ulna were secured and began to heal.
The operation does not come cheap, although it is the surgery and consultation rather than the bone graft that makes up the bulk of the cost. Mr Myint estimated a complex bone graft operation as costing £5,000 or more.
At the moment, only specialist vets like Chester Gates, an animal hospital, offer the service.
In comparison, the new stem cell treatment, which can help ease worn joints and restore mobility to lame dogs, is quick and can be carried out by any qualified vet.
Mr Myint is confident that the treatment will become widespread.
He said: “Four years ago, vets told us ‘we don’t think we’ll need bone grafts’, and then it was offered for dogs and there was demand. They said ‘we don’t need it for cats’, and we’ve run out of bone graft material for cats. I’m sure in five or 10 years time bone grafts and stem cell treatments will be part of veterinary training.”