Age is catching up with Max.
Arthritis in his hips and knees makes it painful — and difficult — for him to get around the Hillcrest Animal Clinic and grounds.
The 13-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever has the heart, blood and soul of a youngster, but unfortunately, the joints and bones of a senior citizen.
Which is why Dr. Pat McInteer, a Lincoln veterinarian, and Max’s owner since vet school, chose his best friend as his first patient for the procedure that uses Max’s own stem cells to regenerate damaged tissue and ligaments.
McInteer is the first vet in Nebraska to offer adipose-derived stem cell treatment by Kentucky-based MediVet America, a veterinary science business.
The process, which takes less than five hours from start to finish, begins with removing fat tissue from the animal, separating the stem cells from the tissue, activating the stem cells and injecting them into the affected area of the animal.
Within one month, Max should be walking better and without pain, said Adrienne Cromer, a MediVet veterinary technician who came to Lincoln to train McInteer and his vet tech Brandi Hale.
Currently, regenerative stem procedures mainly offer alternative therapies for joint and ligament issues, such as arthritis, hip dysplasia, ligament and cartilage injuries and other degenerative diseases. About 20 percent of adult dogs and 45 percent of cats suffer pain from arthritis, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Clinical trials are now under way to see if stem cell therapy can slow down or reverse renal failure in cats, Comer said.
To date, stem cell therapy is primarily given to dogs, cats and horses. Although Comer knows of one kangaroo and a falcon that have received treatment.
“And, I get a lot of questions about giving it to iguanas,” Cromer said.
Cost of the procedure is about $1,800 for dogs and $2,400 for horses, according to MediVet. Cost will vary depending on the number of injection sites on the animal, McInteer said.
Although pet owners and veterinarians offer countless heart-warming stories of stem cell therapy success — clinically speaking little research has been done to establish whether it works and how long it lasts.
According to the JAVMA, the AVMA’s medical publication, some researchers are reluctant to call these derived cells “stem cells” because to date no one has proven these cells have the ability to differentiate into other cell types.
The anecdotal evidence is compelling, say Cromer and McInteer. Comer receives videos, emails and calls from human clients raving at the difference in their beloved pet. They tell stories of pets no longer needing pain and anti-inflammatory medications, sparing owners expense and heartache. They share stories of pets running, jumping, playing and swimming again. Stories of lives saved — and vastly improved.
And that’s why McInteer decided to bring animal stem cell regenerative therapy to his practice.
His clients were the ones who talked about it. Some traveled out of state to have their pets treated — which can be quite costly if your pet is a horse.
McInteer researched stem cell therapy options. He chose MediVet because it provides him with all the equipment and training to harvest, activate and inject the stem cells all within his Branched Oak Road practice. Many other programs require vets to send the tissue out to a lab for stem cell processing — adding days and cost to the procedure.
McInteer selected Max as his first patient for a number of reasons — to see the results for himself and to offer his faithful loving companion a better quality of life.
Max was just 8 weeks old, and McInteer had just been accepted into veterinary school at Kansas State University, when the two adopted one another.
“My intention for Max was for him to be my companion and my buddy,” McInteer said.
He's been that and more — a sometimes hunting companion, a fellow runner, a swimmer and ball fetcher. He's the official greeter and mascot at Hillcrest Animal Clinic, which McInteer and his veterinarian wife, Dr. Kelly Stich, not only own but also live there. Max has been the patient teacher and babysitter for the couple's 4- and 6-year-old sons.
“As he has gotten older he became more arthritic and stiff. He is not able to the stuff he used to," McInteer said.
The last 1 1/2 years have been the hardest on Max.
“His back end is constantly sinking,” McInteer said. “He's weak. He slips on the floor. He does not have as much power as he used to.”
Those same traits will be markers to measure Max’s improvement over the next four to eight weeks.
McInteer sedated Max for the procedure Tuesday morning.
“Max is a horrible patient — despite living in a veterinary clinic,” McInteer said.
Once Max was fully anesthetized, McInteer made a six-inch incision just behind the dog's right shoulder, carefully cut away 40 grams worth of fat tissue — roughly the size of a playing card.
Cromer and Hale then took the tissue, cut it down into tiny pieces and treated it with a small alphabet soup of enzyme solutions. Over the next 45 minutes, the vial of treated tissue sat in a warm bath, and periodically was shaken to break down the materials inside and separate the stem cells from the fat. Next, the cells were activated by other enzymes and plasma derived from Max’s own blood.
Four hours later, Max was again sedated, as McInteer injected the activated stem cells into the dog's hips, back left knee and an epidural to his spine.
“We treat right at the source of the pain,” McInteer said.
More stem cells are given by IV directly into the vein, thereby treating the whole body.
“Stem cells have a homing ability, they will find inflammation we didn’t know was there,” McInteer said.
Other than bare patches of skin from where his hair was shaved away, a long line of stitches and fluid drain in his side, Max is no worse for the wear and back greeting folks at the clinic.
“He ate well and is in good spirits,” McInteer reported Wednesday. “We are all very eager to let time pass a little bit and see what happens.”
Meanwhile, McInteer has already scheduled another animal stem cell regenerative therapy for next week. The patient is another dog. A horse is also being evaluated for the procedure.
Stem cell therapy is not a cure for the degenerative conditions of time and age, McInteer said.
"But stem cells are the next step in controlling inflammation and pain and minimizing the effect of arthritis,” McInteer said.
As for Max?
“I know this is not going to make a 13-year-old turn 4. I just want him to enjoy 13 as much as he can,” McInteer said.