Push the envelope!

“It’s just the squirrels, playing on the roof again,” I told myself as I folded laundry in front of the television. But then something banged into the kitchen table. Startled, I ran into the kitchen. There, I saw Smudge, the youngest of my three Springer Spaniels, convulsing. As an emergency room nurse, I had cared for human patients with epilepsy, but I had never seen an animal seizure. Heart racing, I called my veterinarian. “My dog is having a seizure! What do I do?” I blurted as the receptionist answered.

“Stay quiet and calm.” She softly but firmly told me what to do until the seizure stopped and suggested that I then bring Smudge in to see Dr. Hendricks.

After a neurological assessment, and blood and urine analyses, Dr. Hendricks diagnosed Smudge with idiopathic epilepsy. “We don’t really know what causes these seizures,” Dr. Hendricks said, “and there aren’t any veterinary medicines to stop them. The best option we have is a human drug, phenobarbital.” I was willing to try anything to help two-year- old Smudge.

Uncertain about Smudge’s future, I called her breeder for advice. The breeder referred me to Alexander de Lahunta, DVM, PhD, a Cornell University neurologist. Dr. de Lahunta spent a long time with me, trying to ease my anxiety. He taught me quite a bit about canine seizures and noted that phenobarbital was fairly successful in controlling them.

Over the next several months, Dr. Hendricks guided me in regulating Smudge’s medication. Like most Springers, she remained a bundle of energy, despite the sedating drug. Though Smudge’s seizures were still disturbing, they were pretty short. I kept a log and tried to predict them…without success. Then she had one that wouldn’t stop. Frantic, I rushed her to the clinic. Dr. Hendricks gave her Valium intravenously. However, as soon as he withdrew it, Smudge resumed convulsing. After several attempts, I couldn’t bear to see Smudge suffer any longer. Though it broke my heart, I asked Dr. Hendricks to euthanize her. Little did I know that my heart would be broken twice more.

Seizure control remains one of the biggest challenges in veterinary neurology. According to Dr. de Lahunta, 25-35% of dogs do not respond well to phenobarbital. In those cases, potassium bromide may be prescribed. If that is ineffective, veterinarians may turn to human drugs, which tend to be quite expensive.

“It used to be, if your dog got sick, you just got a new dog,” notes Robert Harman, DVM, the founder of Vet-Stem. “Now, people want the best care, and they (are willing) to pay for it.”1 If Vet-Stem’s fattytissue stem-cell transplant regenerative therapy becomes effective in treating hip dysplasia, bone fractures, and arthritis, then feline renal disease and canine hepatic disease, why not use it to treat idiopathic seizures in dogs? Wishful thinking? Maybe not.

Some healthcare professionals (both human and veterinary) are conservative and prefer to wait until a new therapy has been validated by extensive research. Others are more willing to push the envelope…or at least to think more expansively about what’s already inside it. For example, Janice Naegele, PhD, professor of Biology at Wesleyan University, is researching the use of stem cell therapies to treat human epilepsy. In Korea, research was conducted to determine if allogenic adiposederived stem cells (ASCs) could improve neurological functioning in dogs with spinal cord injuries. “Results suggested that improvement in neurological function by the transplantation of ASCs in dogs with spinal cord injury may be partially due to the neural differentiation of implanted stem cells.”2

Right now, stem cell therapies are clearly experimental, and can be quite expensive. However, some veterinarians are pursuing such therapies. As one told me, “If the client wants to do that which may help and not harm, I’m fine with it. The only harm is to their wallet.” Nicholas Jeffery, BVSc, PhD, professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, cautions that “strict testing of novel interventions must become the norm for veterinarians to be able to maintain our view of ourselves as a ‘science-led’ profession.”3

So, what should we do? Let’s all push!

1Stem-Cell Treatments for Pets, TIME Magazine, 25 June 2008.
1Ryu, H et al, “Functional recovery and neural differentiation after transplantation of allogenic adipose-derived stem cells in a canine model of acute spinal cord injury, Journal of Veterinary Science 10(4):273.
3Jeffery ND, Is “Stem Cell Therapy” Becoming 21st Century Snake Oil?, Veterinary Surgery 41 (2012):219.