At least three or four days a week, Twyla Waters and her 3-year-old dog Blue visit Shelby Farms. It's a routine that Waters began when the German shepherd was just a puppy. But last November, Waters noticed Blue having trouble with her back left leg after their play sessions at the park.
"She'd hold up that back leg if she were standing, and she would limp when she'd walk," Waters said.
A veterinarian diagnosed Blue with hip dysplasia, a condition that causes painful arthritis. Waters considered acupuncture treatment with Kathy Mitchener, a Cordova cancer vet who also specializes in the ancient Chinese medical treatment.
"We talked about acupuncture, and then Mitchener told me about the stem-cell procedure," Waters said.
Since December, Mitchener has performed four canine stem-cell procedures. She's the only vet in the region authorized to perform stem-cell treatment.
"I wouldn't say it cures arthritis, but it controls the progression of the disease so you get a significant improvement in the dog's ability to move and a significant decrease in pain," said Mitchener, who learned about the procedure at an acupuncture conference last October.
Here's how the procedure worked: Mitchener removed fat from Blue's groin, which was shipped to a lab in San Diego. Stem cells were removed from the fat tissue and sent back to Memphis. Mitchener then injected the stem cells into Blue's bad hip.
Because stem cells have the ability to become any type of cell, they can help regenerate unhealthy or damaged tissue.
"I saw results from the surgery the next day. When Blue would sit she could bend her back legs more than she had been able to before," Waters said.
Mitchener first performed the procedure on a Chow whose knees were so bad she couldn't squat.
"She was defecating on herself," Mitchener said. "The loss of dignity and quality of life was really profound. Within two days of transplanting [the stem cells] into her, she was able to squat again."
The stem-cell procedure has been around since 2001 and currently is used only to treat arthritis and tissue repair in horses and dogs.
"People ask if it will work for kidneys and hearts that are failing, and we don't know yet," Mitchener said.
The method of harvesting stem cells for pet treatments differs from the controversial embryonic stem-cell research in humans. But Mitchener said some doctors are beginning to use the fat-harvest method for treating bad knees in humans.
"The cool thing about using fat cells is they come from the patient, so there's no rejection issues and no controversy," Mitchener said.
"I'm so excited about this. I want to do a hundred a week," Mitchener said. "Not only can I help the old dogs, now I've got something to offer these young performance dogs who are chasing Frisbees and running after tennis balls. They can do that for a long time now, even if they have bad joints."