Slipped discs are the most common reason for attending a doctor’s appointment in Switzerland. Whilst surgery can address the pain associated with herniation, the disc remains degenerated. Veterinary surgeons investigating the potential to regenerate spinal discs using stem cells in Zurich, Switzerland, have found injections with autologous stem cells to be well-tolerated and to cause no negative effects in a group of German shepherds. They believe that this research demonstrates promise for the eventual treatment of disc degeneration by the injection of stem cells.
Disc herniation is not only common in humans, but also among certain breeds of dog. Following discectomy to remove degenerated and herniated discs, the pressure on the nerves and medulla should disappear. Disc regeneration, however, could one day offer a solution to degeneration—which leads to herniation—without the need to remove the disc.
Researchers, based at the Vetsuisse Faculty of the University of Zurich, have been investigating the use of stem cell therapy as a means of regenerating spinal discs. Frank Steffen, neurologist at the Clinic for Small Animal Surgery at the Vetsuisse Faculty, hopes that the stem cells will one day form new disc cartilage once injected into a damaged disc. His study on three sick German shepherds demonstrate that a treatment with the body’s own stem cells are well tolerated—an important first step.
Research on intervertebral disc regeneration is frequently performed using animal testing. At the Clinic for Small Animal Surgery in Zurich, however, researchers have taken another path. “Since we treat numerous dogs who spontaneously sustain a slipped disc every year, we have been able to gain important knowledge directly from animals that are actually afflicted with this disease,” Steffen explains. “Due to the similarity in pathology and the course of the illness, conclusions can presumably be drawn for the treatment of affected persons as well.” The project for the development of stem cell therapy in dogs is being conducted in cooperation with Swiss Paraplegic Research (SPR) in Nottwil, Switzerland.
With the permission of the dog owners, Steffen and his team removed stem cells from the pelvic bone marrow of the affected animals. After the cleaning and preparation of the cell material in the laboratory, the stem cells were injected into the degenerated intervertebral disc during a surgical treatment already necessary for the animal in question.
“Our objective is for the stem cells to trigger cellular and molecular repair processes and, ideally, to form new intervertebral disc cells in order to contribute to the regeneration of the tissue,” Steffen explains.
The three dogs tolerated the injections of the autologous stem cells well, and the researchers have determined no negative effects. However, later X-rays and magnetic resonance tomographies did not show clear indications that the damaged discs have already regenerated in comparison with the control group.
Steffen is not discouraged, however, by these results. “Proving the tolerability of the therapy was our first important step,” he says. His current work is now focusing on assessing the effectiveness of stem cell injections, for example, with the targeted addition of growth factors. “If our method proves successful one day,” he says, “it would be a pioneering step—for human medicine as well.”