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Immunotherapy and Stem Cell Therapy FAQs

What exactly is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy broadly defined is the administration of substances that stimulate an immune response by the body.  These substances can include non-specific immune stimulants (eg, bacterial products), specific stimulants (eg, recombinant cytokines), allergy immunotherapy (allergy “shots”), or therapeutic vaccines.

Is there evidence that immunotherapy is effective? Is it safe?

Is it safe?  It is clear based on numerous well-designed clinical trials that immunotherapy is very effective in veterinary patients.  These studies have included studies in cancer, viral infections, bacterial infections, and allergy and autoimmune diseases.  Most immunotherapeutics induce some side-effects because the immune system must be sufficiently activated to elicit a therapeutic effect.  These side-effects are often those associated with mild cases of flu (low-grade fever, lethargy, temporary inappetance).

Which diseases are most likely to respond to immunotherapy?

Current evidence suggests that allergic diseases, chronic viral infections, and cancer are most likely to respond to immunotherapy. 

What are the current options for immunotherapy in veterinary medicine?

At present there are not a large number of immunotherapeutic products available in veterinary medicine.  The largest number of products are available for treating horses, including products for treatment/prevention of equine viral infections and equine sarcoids.  In dogs and cats, there are fewer products currently available.  In some cases, the administration of human cytokines (eg, interferon-alpha) may have brief beneficial effects in dogs and cats. 

What clinical trials of immunotherapy are being conducted at CSU?

Currently, new immunotherapeutic approaches are being evaluated for treatment of cancer in dogs, including cancer vaccines and cancer immunotherapeutics for dogs with metastatic bone cancer.

Where are the cells used for stem cell therapy obtained?

Most of the stem cell therapy studies conducted at CSU use mesenchymal stem cells (MSC), which are stem cells present in many tissues of adult animals, especially in the bone marrow and in adipose tissues.  These cells are collected by simple biopsy procedures and grown to large numbers in the lab before being injected back into the patient.

How safe is stem cell therapy?

Stem cell therapy using mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) is considered very safe, with few side-effects.  Potential concerns with MSC therapy include inflammatory reactions at the injection site (very rare) and development of cancer from the injected MSC (not shown convincingly to occur).  When MSC are derived from an unrelated donor, there is the potential for transmission of infectious agents from the donated MSC, though the risks can be minimized by careful screening of donors.  At the CIRM, donor animals are carefully screened for potential infectious agents before their cells are used for stem cell therapy.

Has stem cell therapy been shown effective for treatment of any diseases in animals?

Numerous small-scale stem cell therapy trials are currently underway for a variety of different diseases in veterinary medicine, especially musculoskeletal and joint diseases in horses and dogs.  However, at present no well-designed randomized clinical trials assessing the efficacy of stem cell therapy have been conducted or published in the peer-reviewed literature.  Thus, at present any assessments of the benefits of stem cell therapy are based largely on anecdotal evidence, which may or may not reflect true clinical efficacy.

What diseases are most likely to respond to stem cell therapy?

Though definitive data are lacking, current evidence suggests that healing of localized injuries such as tendon or joint or bone injuries are most likely to respond to stem cell therapy.  In contrast, more long-standing diseases such as chronic degenerative osteoarthritis may be less likely to respond.  Other diseases such as asthma and chronic kidney disease have shown promising responses in mouse models, but studies in large animals are still in early stages.

How are stem cells administered?

For treatment of tendon, bone, and joint injuries, the MSC can be directly injected using a needle.  For systemic diseases such as asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, or kidney disease, the stem cells are administered intravenously.  For treatment of liver disease, the stem cells are administered into the spleen.

Is stem cell therapy expensive?

At present, most stem cell studies are done under the auspices of clinical trials at academic medical centers.  In some cases, the clinical trials will be partially or completely funded by study sponsors.  However, in other cases the clinical trials may not be fully funded and will require clients to front the study costs.  A few commercial companies provide stem cells for treatment, and these stem cell treatments are typically very expensive.
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