Stem cell treatment proves promising in dogs with Crohn's-like disease

Once they reach middle age, German shepherd dogs become susceptible to a painful illness that bears remarkable similarities to Crohn's disease in people. The ailment, called canine anal furunculosis (CAF), is often genetic, and some research suggests it might be caused by an overactive immune system. Massachusetts-based Ocata Therapeutics ($OCAT) may have found a way to knock the disease into remission in dogs: with stem cells.

Ocata recently published a paper in the journal Regenerative Medicine reporting that it successfully used human pluripotent stem cell-derived mesenchymal cells to treat 6 dogs with CAF. The dogs, who were patients at the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University, had become resistant to cyclosporine, a commonly used treatment for CAF. Three months after being injected with the cells, all 6 dogs were free of major physical signs of the disease. Only two relapsed.

After the treatment, the dogs showed reduced levels of IL-2 and IL-6, which are inflammatory proteins associated with Crohn's disease, according to the paper. The authors suggest that combining stem cells with cyclosporine could improve the care of dogs with CAF, though more extensive studies would be required.

"This study provides the first evidence of the safety and therapeutic potential of human pluripotent stem cell-derived mesenchymal stem cells in a large animal model," said Ocata's chief scientific officer, Robert Lanza, in a press release. "Canines have a physiology and sophisticated immune system that closely resembles that of humans," he noted, though the company has yet to announce its plans to further develop the treatment for either dogs or people based on these results.

Lanza and Ocata, formerly known as Advanced Cell Technology, have been working on developing stem cell therapies since the mid-1990s. Most recently the company has focused its efforts on eye diseases, and it is in mid-stage trials of a cell therapy to treat age-related macular degeneration and Stargardt disease.

Ocata is not alone in its interest in treating companion animals with stem cells. In mid-September, California-based VetStem Biopharma announced that it is launching a trial of a therapy that uses stem cells to prevent exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, a dangerous condition that can affect racehorses. VetStem is also working with Aratana ($PETX) on a stem cell treatment for dogs with osteoarthritis.

- here's Ocata's press release
- access the Regenerative Medicine paper here