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Stem cell research to keep pets living longer

February 15, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Studies show Americans spends $10 billion a year at the vet - about the same annual amount we spend going to the movies. Now, science may be able to help man's best friend and maybe his master beat a deadly condition.

Chris Mattson has had his Doberman, Cayden, for five years. But during all those good times, Mattson knew he'd have to face reality sooner or later.

The worry: Cayden suffers from dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. It's a heart muscle disease that affects 50 percent of Dobermans - more than any other breed. While a diagnosis in humans leads to a transplant, Dobermans are usually dead within six months.

"They all eventually enter a phase where they go into congestive heart failure," said Dr. Amara Estrada, DVM, associated professor and service chief of cardiology in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Florida.

So Dr. Estrada has embarked on a unique way to help. By using stem cells from other dogs, doctors are hoping to grow new heart muscle in Dobermans.

"So I can give donor cells from another dog, doesn't even have to be a Doberman, and they won't undergo immune rejection," said Dr. Estrada.

So far, these stem cells have repaired some heart pump function in animals.

While saving Dobermans is Dr. Estrada's focus now, humans may soon benefit from her work, too.

"It's possible that this could be a translational model so a model for human disease," said Dr. Estrada.

That means the very science that may save Cayden just may save his master down the line.

Dr. Estrada needs more dogs for the clinical trial. Her goal is to enroll at least 15 Dobermans from across the United States in the next several months.


DILATED CARDIOMYOPATHY (DCM): According to the Mayo Clinic, DCM is a disease that mostly affects the heart's left ventricle, which is its main pumping chamber. When inflicted with the disease, the victim's left ventricle becomes dilated, or enlarged, and begins to have difficulty pumping blood with the needed amount of force. DCM is a tricky disease in that it isn't always accompanied by telling symptoms. Nonetheless, it is a serious, sometimes fatal disease that is a common cause of heart failure. Other serious complications include arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), blood clots and even sudden death. It is often seen in middle-aged people, but can affect just about anyone - even infants.

SYMPTOMS: Unfortunately, symptoms usually do not become pronounced until the disease has led to arrhythmias and heart failure. They include:

  • Fatigue
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Appetite loss
  • Lack of focus
  • Heart palpitations

DIAGNOSIS: No tests are conclusive enough to detect disease-linked gene mutations. If symptoms develop, a doctor will usually work to rule out any possible illnesses associated with the symptoms, and then test the heart's functionality by running a series of examinations. These may include a routine physical examination, blood work, a chest X-ray, exercise stress tests, and more in-depth tests such as computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, electrocardiograms (use electrical signals to observe heart rhythm), echocardiography (uses sound waves to create an image of the heart) and cardiac catheterization. Genetic screening and family history reports can help a doctor make the diagnosis as well.

For more information, contact Sarah Carey
Director of Public Relations, University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine
(352) 294-4242