Veterinary Regenerative Medicine: My Interview with Dr. Robert J. Harman, D.V.M., M.P.V.M. – CEO and founder of Vet-Stem, Regenerative Veterinary Medicine
I was awarded an interview with Vet-Stem’s CEO and founder, Dr. Robert J. Harman, D.V.M., M.P.V.M.! My dogs and I are big advocates of veterinary regenerative medicine. I am very excited about helping to get the word out there. Stem cell regenerative therapy is already helping dogs and horses with arthritis, tendon and ligament injuries. And we have more exciting things to look forward to.
First of all, congratulations on your recent milestone of 5,000 treated pets! I am very excited that our Jasmine is one of them!
I am dying to find out how Vet-Stem technology was born and who were its parents.
Dr. Harman: I was approached by a company in the human stem cell business, Cytori. They asked me to consider licensing into vet medicine. I was retired at the time. So I decided to make a comeback and start a new company based on stem cells from fat tissue. I was totally captivated by the possibilities. My partner from two prior businesses, Mike Dale, joined me along with a scientist from our prior businesses, Dr. Ted Sand.
Did you have to overcome bureaucratic barriers?
Dr. Harman: Yes. First we needed to get the proper licenses from the holders of the patents. That took a year! The FDA was very helpful and we have been in contact with them nearly every year to discuss our progress. Since this is a service and not a product, the FDA does not currently regulate this in veterinary medicine.
What is the difference between embryonic and adult stem cells?
Dr. Harman: Embryonic stem cells come from very young embryos (about 7-10 days after the egg is fertilized). These cells are really meant to make a whole animal and not for repair. As well as they are not the animal’s own cells and can be rejected. Adult stem cells are found in almost all tissues of the body. We use fat as the source because it is the richest and concentrated in the body that provides enough stem cells from a small collection of fat from a dog that you do not need to grow them. Adult stem cells are the cells that the body uses naturally to heal injuries.
What do adult stem cells do?
Dr. Harman: Adult stem cells are the master healing cells of the body. They manage and contribute to a reduction in pain, inflammation and protect against the formation of unwanted scar tissue.
How do adult stem cells relieve pain?
Dr. Harman: They work at the site of injury to
- reduce the swelling and inflammation
- and to reduce all the chemicals that are involved in tissue damage and the creation of pain.
How do adult stem cells work to decrease inflammation?
Dr. Harman: The adult stem cells actually turn off and block the production of the chemicals involved in inflammation. They “read” the signals at the injury site and regulate the healing process.
So the inflammation is really a ‘call for help’ which is turned off once the help arrives?
Dr. Harman: Yes, in a manner. The inflammation is truly a signal that attracts the cells. As the inflammation is handled by the cells, the signal is reduced until, in the end, the healing process is complete and the inflammation is gone.
What else is in the syringe?
Dr. Harman: A normal saline solution and the mixture of the animal’s stem and regenerative cells. The cells include:
- adipose stem cells
- endothelial cells, or the cells that line blood vessels – they help to make new blood vessels in injured tissue
- vascular smooth muscle cells – make the muscles in arteries and veins
- hematopoietic stem cells – these are more adept at making the cells in blood-like red and white cells
- many types of immune cells like B and T cells that are involved in managing the immune system functions.
And all these wonderful cells are just laying around in the fat tissue?
Dr. Harman: Yes they are. They reside there in something like suspended animation or sleeping. When the signals come from a distant injury, they wake up and become active and travel to the site of injury. Our intent is to “help” the healing process by providing more of the healing cells in a more rapid manner to the injury site.
It seems that people reach for the stem cell regenerative therapy only when all else fails. I hope that the day will come that it will be considered first and not last.
What criteria, other than running out of options makes a dog a good candidate for stem cell regenerative therapy?
Dr. Harman: You are very correct. We need to see stem cell therapy as an early treatment and not just for when other treatments fail. It is always easier to repair an injury earlier rather than when it becomes chronic. Young dogs with a long life ahead of them are great candidates. Blocking the joint degeneration and doing early repair can help hold off the effects of aging and joint breakdown.
Is there such a thing as a bad candidate?
Dr. Harman: A pet with too many other health issues might be a bad candidate for the short surgery used to collect the fat. Also, the other health issues likely need addressing independent of arthritis.
Can you compare the safety of stem cell regenerative therapy with the safety of the NSAID or steroidal drugs?
Dr. Harman: I can tell you that with stem cell therapy in dogs and horses we have never seen a systemic (ill animal) effect in over 5,000 treatments. Less than one percent of the time we see a local irritation at the site of injection that might be due to the injection of cells. We believe the record is very strong. Dogs with an active infection or active cancer should be treated for the infection or cancer first. Then consider afterward if stem cells might be of benefit.
Have there been any complications reported with the treatment?
Dr. Harman: See the safety comment above. Also, it is possible to get a serum pocket formation at the site of a collection of fat tissue. This is not common and does resolve in a short period of time if treated properly. Some dogs with multiple joints affected and injected may be sore from the manipulation of the arthritic joints.
What conditions in dogs are currently treated with stem cell regenerative therapy?
Dr. Harman: Arthritis, tendon injury and ligament injury are the most common. Some clinics and vets have been authorized for a limited program of treating inflammatory bowel disease.
How do the results compare with the results of the traditional approaches to these conditions?
Dr. Harman: Over 80% of owners report an improvement in the quality of life of their pets after Vet-Stem treatment.
What can stem cell regenerative therapy do for dogs with hip dysplasia? (early/late stages).
Dr. Harman: Stem cell therapy does not actually treat the dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is a problem with bone conformation (shape) in the dog. Stem cells treat the pain, inflammation and clinical effects of having a joint that does not wear normally. It can provide long term relief in many cases. With the problem with the shape of the joint, the pet may need additional injections in the future. Those usually come from the extra cells that are stored frozen for future use.
Are there any reports of successful treatment of ligament injuries?
Dr. Harman: Yes. We learned in the horse that these cells effectively treat ligament injury. It is important that your veterinarian first determine if surgery is needed to repair a major tear in a ligament, like a cruciate ligament, before a decision is made on whether stem cell treatment will be helpful. Also, many vets are using stem cell therapy along with surgery to assist in the healing.
Are there any canine patients who had been successfully treated for a partial crucial ligament tear/stretch?
Dr. Harman: Yes, when the veterinarian does a full evaluation of the cruciate ligament by MRI or arthroscopy, they can tell how bad is the tear. Some veterinarians then decide to use stem cells in smaller injuries instead of surgery and others will add it to the surgery to help in the healing.
Can adult stem cells modulate the immune system? If so, do they need to be administered through IV?
Dr. Harman: Yes. There are many articles now describing how these cells will reduce the effects of an immune system that is out of control – examples are autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, atopic dermatitis, and inflammatory bowel disease. We are seriously studying these. Generally, the cells are given IV so as to have a “whole body” effect.
How do stem cells help to treat autoimmune diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease?
Dr. Harman: The stem cells turn down the allergic immune response in the GI tract. Very complicated cell biology, but powerful. It is in clinical trials in humans already. I hope to have some additional information and data by early fall to guide us in the use in IBD.
I understand that not only can people have their unused doses banked, but you can also grow more? How long does it take to grow them?
Dr. Harman: Yes. Generally, a dog will have one or more extra doses from the original collection. Vet-Stem will freeze these in a special process and store them at minus 180C in liquid nitrogen, which keeps them alive and safe for many years. We also store a small extra sample that can be used to grow up additional cells for use if we need even more cells in the future (takes 4-6 weeks).
What is your vision for the future of stem cell regenerative therapy for dogs?
Dr. Harman: I believe that all veterinary clinics will be using stem cell therapy in the near future. We will see use in orthopedics first, but then many other diseases will be treated as we discover the protocols that work. Examples for the future are kidney failure, atopic dermatitis, liver failure, and heart disease. There is active research in each of these areas and many others. We share our data with our human medicine colleagues and they share with us, to the benefit of people and their beloved companions!
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I am very excited about the stem cell regenerative therapy, I have seen the wonderful results first hand in our Jasmine.
I am looking forward to seeing what your research brings in the future!
Digging Deeper: The Science Behind Adipose-Derived Stem Cell Therapy
Platelet Therapy for Dogs: Regenerative Veterinary Medicine
What is VetStem Regenerative Medicine?