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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Stem Cell Transplants: Dog Cancer Cures?

Updated: June 28th, 2018

Many of us have heard of bone marrow transplants used in people with cancers.  In the last few years, bone marrow transplants have become available for dogs too.  Ironically, it was dogs that served as the models for development of the technology in people more than 3 decades ago.

Finally, they are benefiting from the procedure they sacrificed for.

First, let’s look at the benefits. Systemic cancer is hardly ever cured in dogs with conventional veterinary care.  Sure, there are exceptions, maybe a couple percent of these dogs.  For the most part, we are looking to only make things better for a period of time if we stick to just chemo, surgery and radiation.

With bone marrow transplants, things may change.  It is not easy, simple, nor without risks, but if dogs turn out like people, certain lymphosarcoma cases could be looking at a cure rate of roughly 6 in 10.  Those are huge numbers, folks.

The cancers treated with the newest approach involve cancerous white blood cells in the circulation.  Lymphosarcoma is the most common, with lymphoblastic leukemia also being treated.  I am not aware of other cancer types being treated with this procedure currently, but that does not exclude them.

“Bone marrow transplant” is a horrible name for what is going on these days.  It does not involve the bone marrow directly, nor does it involve moving it from one location to another.  The procedure that is most exciting currently is Autologous Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplantation. It takes, very roughly, three weeks of hospital time.

Here is a brief summary of this procedure in an ideal world:

Chemo puts the cancer in remission. Healthy stem cells used to repopulate the bone marrow are harvested.  Radiation is used to kill remaining cancer cells. Healthy stem cells are put back in the patient and life is good.

Cost from the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina: about $15,000.

It is not that simple however, as you will see. Let’s look at more details.

Autologous indicates that the patient is the donor, not another dog.  The bone marrow is not harvested.  Instead, blood taken from a vein that is collected through a port.  It is then pumped into a machine which is able to filter out and remove healthy, non-cancerous stem cells.

These stem cells are capable of growing into un-diseased cells that would arise from the  bone marrow. The separation of these cells is called  leukaphoresis, and the machine is aptly called a leukaphoresis machine.  The blood, following stem cell removal, is pumped back into the patient.

However, before all of this can happen, the dog must be primed for the leukaphoresis procedure.  Not only must the cancer be in total remission, there can be no infection or exposure to microbes.  The patient is treated with antibiotics and the chemo drug cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) before-hand.

Next, a week of rest is given. Then a drug called Neupogen is used for six days to boost the stem cell levels in the blood before they are collected. On days 6, leukaphoresis is done.  Leukaphoresis requires about 3 hours (more or less) of general anesthesia, but does not appear to be painful.  The stem cells are stored.

The next day is radiation day.  This is also done under general anesthesia. Radiation is performed to try to kill the cancer cells that are resting dormant (in remission) from the chemo.  Total Body Irradiation  (TBI) is when a dog’s entire body is exposed to radiation.

The idea behind TBI  is that if there is cancer in the circulation, like lymphosarcoma, you cannot point the radiation beam at a single tumor since the cells are traveling around the body.  So the whole body gets dosed.

Finally, it is time for transfusion of the crop of stem cells from the luekaphoresis procedure done beforehand.  They are taken out of storage to be transfused immediately after the irradiation.

Then we have about 2 weeks of supportive care in the hospital.  Blood testing is done during this time to monitor the effects of the radiation on the body’s bone marrow cells.

The least costly way, I believe, to get this procedure done for your dog is through the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University.  Please note that the procedure is done only after a referral from your veterinarian.

Another procedure involving blood donations from a dog’s family (allogeneic stem cell transplants) has been available through Bellingham Veterinary Critical Care in Washington State.

As usual, be your dog’s number one health care advocate!

In the next post, I will examine some of the other details of this procedure.  For more on cutting-edge treatments, both conventional and “outside the box” that you can independently research and pursue, check out the Dog Cancer Survival Guide.

Best to all

Dr D

Leave a Comment

  1. Terry on July 23, 2019 at 6:10 pm

    Where did Dr. Dressler do his residency?

  2. Bo Odom on March 23, 2019 at 10:33 am

    My 9 year old Australian Sheppard has his spleen removed for a hermangionsarcoma sorry for spelling errors. It had not spread yet to other areas. I am desperately looking for any help for my best friend. Vets just tell you that you have a little time few speak of eastern meds or foods just chemo. Any other options showing promise?

    • Dog Cancer Vet Team on March 25, 2019 at 6:54 am

      Hi Bo,

      Thanks for writing! As Dr. Dressler writes in the Dog Cancer Survival Guide, there are a number of things that you can do to help your dog with cancer– Conventional Treatments (Surgery, chemo, radiation), Nutraceuticals, Immune System Boosters and anti-metastatics, diet, and brain chemistry modifications. This is what Dr. D calls the Full Spectrum Approach 🙂

  3. Justin on October 17, 2017 at 4:05 am

    Dr Dressler and everyone else,

    My name is Justin Miller and my Great Dane’s name is Bruiser. Bruiser was 3 years 8 months old at the time of his B-cell lymphoma diagnosis. Living in NC already, I immediately got a referral to see Dr. Suter @ NC State Univ.
    EVERYONE reading this, I’ve never in my life felt like Myself and girlfriend or my boy Bruiser have ever been in better hands than with the team at NC State. Bruiser was accepted to do a Autogolus BMT by Dr. Suter. After talking with both Dr. Ed Sullivan and Dr. Suter, there had never been a Great Dane or a dog as large as Bruiser, have this procedure. We were scared, excited, terrified, happy and every other emotion you can think of while going through this 3 week BMT process & being away from Bruiser while he was in their care. Dr. Steven Suter’s team is UNBELIEVABLE! We received FaceTime chat sessions every day sometimes multiple times daily with Dr. Suter, his fellow Dr. Toko, and Bruiser. Being able to see Bruiser every day no matter how heartbreakingly sick he looked made us always feel better.
    At the end of our procedure and upon picking up Bruiser, the care and concern from Dr. Suter and Dr. Toko did not end there and to this day still hasn’t ended. After 6-8 months being past us since treatment ensued, they still reach out to us to this day asking how Bruiser is doing and getting updates.
    Bottom line, Dr. Steven Suter, Dr. Toko and their team gave us our boy back and have proven time and time again to have given their best effort at Bruiser being potentially cured from Cancer. These doctors have dedicated their lives to this form of medicine and they’ve been a godsend for us.
    AFTER THE BMT PROCEDURE, we opted to contact Dr. Ed Sullivan and inquire about (and sign up to pay for) the Adoptive T-Cell Therapy his company has also “invented” for dogs. Dr. Sullivan, being the major pioneer of this medicine, was wonderful to work with. We simply sent vials of Bruisers blood to them and they harvest T-Cells and send the blood back to be put back in Bruiser. This process is non-invasive and simply dramatically increases chances of a cure being achievable.
    We can now look back and without a doubt know, we gave Bruiser every bit of fight and chance we could to help him live. Today Bruiser is doing great and with prayers and lots of luck, he will live a normal life and give us lots of love along the way!

    -Justin Miller & Jessica Lauer
    “Bruiser”- our Great Dane

  4. Edmund Sullivan, DVM on September 18, 2013 at 6:30 am

    Dr. Dressler,

    Thank you very much for writing this brief and informative post about bone marrow transplants for the treatment of hematologic malignancies.

    My name is Edmund Sullivan, and I am the founder of the bone marrow transplant procedures for dogs as they exist today. Our hospital is one of a small handful around the country that is capable of completing the transplant procedure. There is a link on our web site to the hospitals currently completing transplants. I would encourage anyone with questions about getting scheduled for a transplant to contact one of these hospitals early after the diagnosis of lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, or other systemic hematopoietic disease (these may include systemic mast cell tumor and histiocytosis).

    There is one addition to the standard bone marrow transplant procedure that we are currently working on that has hope of improving outcomes. This is called Adoptive Immunotherapy as was recently published by Colleen O’ Conner et al at MD Anderson Cancer Treatment Center.

    For the people who have made posts from Europe: I would encourage you to contact one of us soon and make arrangements for travel to the US for a transplant. I do not know of anyone in Europe doing the procedures at this time. If you have an oncologist you are using who is interested in learning the procedure I would gladly speak with them about the technical aspects.

    Good luck to all of you. Collectively (including many dogs from NCSU) we have completed transplants on over 120 dogs. Many 30-40% of that had autologous transplants have been cured, and over 60% of dogs treated with allogeneic transplants have been cured.

    Edmund Sullivan, DVM

  5. William Geese, Ph.D. on April 2, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Decent write-up, however, there was little/no mention of the extensive recovery period involved while engraftment is occurring (as well as beyond). This was the most stressful time of the while procedure (from a dog-owner perspective) while we waited for his lymphocytes and platelets to finally rebound.

    Our greyhound, Plucky, went through this procedure at NCSU in the Fall of 2011. I’m happy and very grateful to say that he is now 14 month post HSCT, and continues to be in remission (knock wood!).

  6. Ed Capps on July 31, 2012 at 4:47 am

    Dr. D,

    I have spoken with both Dr Suter at NC State, and Dr. Sullivan( I think) in Washington about the stem cell transplant. Both, especially Dr Sullivan thought it a very good idea to prophylactically cryo-store the stem calls ahead of time. Is this your opinion as well?

    Thank you

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on August 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm

      Dear Ed,
      I’d go with their recommendation. Its always best to get info from the folks in the trenches using the tool in question-
      Dr D

  7. Jan Angers on November 29, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    In Memoriam

    You Have to Love a Collie to Understand
    We have had three females named Lady, but I must tell you about the very first Lady. In the early 1960’s my husband (Brad) was driving through a park and noticed two dogs walking around in traffic on a very busy street. They looked like they were lost. One was a small dog and one was a collie. A neighbor stopped by and happened to notice that my husband was trying to round up the dogs and get them to safety. The neighbor said she would help the smaller dog if my husband would take the collie (we had a station wagon).
    When my husband called the collie she jumped into the station wagon with no problem and when Brad took her to a safer area to let her out, she wouldn’t get out. (I guessed she already made up her mind who she wanted to be with) So Brad brought her home. Well, as soon as I saw her, I wanted to keep her. She was dirty, unkept and a little thin, but to me, beautiful. We tried for several days to find where she lived. We called the animal shelters and ran an ad. Finally after asking neighbors and their kids we were able to locate her owners. That afternoon we tried to contact her owner, but no one was home. We looked around the house and found a big metal stake with a chain and collar laying in a deep circular rut dug around the pole. Later that night we visited the owner and told her about finding her dog in the freeway. The owner said “Oh that dog, she’s always getting out and always in trouble. I don’t know what I am going to do with her.” Well, we knew this was the time to ask her if she wanted to sell her. (She immediately became a very valuable dog) After a little negotiating, we bought her.
    I know my husband thought he was buying her for me but that was not to be the case. Brad and Lady were like two peas in a pod. Always playing, always kissing, always very loving. She never wanted to leave him. When Brad went for a drive in his corvette, Lady jumped in on the passenger side before I could get in and looked at me ‘like go away, this is my time’. (I still got my share of love from her)
    One day when I was at work, Brad answered the door bell and a magazine salesman was trying to peddle his wares. Brad said no and closed the door and went out to the kitchen to fix a sandwich. The salesman apparently decided to come in uninvited and Lady ran quickly into the living room and grabbed the salesman’s throat, ripping some of the skin. The salesman left in a hurry and complained to the police. Later we found out the salesman had been entering a lot of houses around the neighborhood uninvited. Lady knew he was up to no good. She was always so gentle around everyone else, this was such a surprise! (The police commended her for the capture.)
    On another occasion, we had a friend who would come over to visit us and Lady never liked him from the beginning. Later we found out he was a nasty person with a very mean streak. Other times she would let us know people she didn’t trust and believe it or not she was always right.
    There was the memorable time when she had a litter of pups in her “box” in a guest room. We always came running when we herd any commotion. One day I had just taken a large baked ham out of the oven and had it on the counter preparing to slice, when we heard the puppies making a fuss. My husband and I both ran to the “box” and found everything ok. We returned to the kitchen only to find Lady making a meal of our ham. Too damn smart we thought.
    Many years later we noticed a little lump in her neck area. We took her to our vet. The report was not good. Our veterinarians diagnosis was confirmed by other clinics. Lady, now a ten year old collie, had lymph-sarcoma, an incurable form of cancer. My husband and I were devastated. We consulted M.D. Anderson in Houston and Texas A & M University all to no avail.
    Then we received a call from Dr. Amanullah Kahn at Wadley Blood Research in Dallas. He told us of their ongoing research with cancer fighting drugs. Lady was immediately accepted for a series of experimental treatments. For over a year she made her twice weekly trips to the clinic. Each time taking time to visit the rooms of every child at the clinic. The doctors and nurses looked forward to her visits. She was a model patient.
    Then the unthinkable happened. A new vet who was unfamiliar with Ladys case, by accident, administered live virus at the time of her annual shots. She passed away almost immediately. Again a dark cloud hung over our family.
    A few days later we received a call from the Dr’s Ted & Ellen Loeb, Directors of Wadley Research, asking us to visit with them. While in their office several children came in to say hello. After they had left Dr. Loeb said they knew how we felt about the loss of Lady and they wanted my husband and I to meet these children. She said that those children were alive because of what they had learned from Lady. Then, and only then, did I realize that Lady had completed her mission. Her life did mean something.
    My wife and I donated a color TV for the childrens ward in Lady’s name. She would have wanted the children to have it.
    Lady has since been replaced with a playmate for our male collie, Texas, but as with any collie lover, you can understand, she can never be replaced in our hearts

  8. Kiki Mollin on June 18, 2010 at 3:11 am

    Dear Dr Dressler,

    is there a veterinary clinic in Europe that provides this stem cell terapy for dog ?
    I live in Belgium, but I’m prepared to cross all of Europe.

    Thanks in advance,

  9. Dr. Impellizeri on March 28, 2010 at 8:30 am

    We are proud to announce that the Veterinary Specialty Center of the Hudson Valley is now part of the group of hospitals in the world for this bone marrow transplant procedure for NY, NJ and CT. Pricing is competitive with North Carolina State University and we were trained by the same group in Seattle that trained the team at NC State. Form more information, have you primary care veterinarian call us at 845 632-3200.

  10. Lexi on February 20, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    My girlfriend’s 7 y/o English Bulldog was diagnosed with acute aplastic leukemia on Tuesday. Chemo therapy started the next day. She was told that with that treatment her bone marrow would be destroyed. Would she be a candidate for bone marrow transplant? If so, where would we find a qualified veterinarian oncologist who specializes in this?

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