For nearly a decade, pet reporter Julia Szabo struggled to control her inflammatory bowel disease with conventional medicine. Then, in 2008, Szabo’s dog Sam collapsed from osteoarthritis. While feverishly researching how to improve his life, she stumbled across a company that uses stem-cell regeneration therapy to treat ailing animals. Within hours of receiving the stem-cell injections, Sam began acting pain-free—and Szabo had an epiphany. Why couldn’t what Publisher's Weekly described as a "cutting-edge medical procedure" heal her ailments? In her book, Medicine Dog: The Miraculous Cure That Healed My Best Friend and Saved My Life, Szabo chronicles her journey to be treated like man’s best friend.
MORE: What is stem cell regeneration?
Julia Szabo: It’s basically removing fat cells—as with liposuction, but not for looks—then harvesting stem cells from the fat and reinjecting those into your body. The stem cells are like a special-forces unit your body keeps in reserve. When they are removed from the fat in which they are lying dormant and injected back into you, they act as a search and repair team—finding areas that are inflamed or otherwise need healing. [Editor’s note: Stem cell regenerative medicine encompasses many procedures, not only those using fat stem cells.]
MORE: What prompted you to research the procedure?
J.S.: My eldest dog, Sam, had been wobbly on his legs for about two years. In 2008, when he was 14, he became unable to lift his hind leg to go to the bathroom. Prior to that, he’d been like Baryshnikov—he had this unbelievable leg extension. Now poor Sam was peeing with all four feet on the floor. It was totally emasculating. One day in April, he collapsed on the street. A lot of people at that point would say, “Well, he’s 14 years old. Time to say goodbye.” But I wouldn’t do that. The Internet led me to Vet-Stem, a company near San Diego that specializes in veterinary stem cell regeneration. Sam had the procedure. When he arrived home, about three hours after his anesthesia wore off, he pushed past me, walked over to a hydrant and lifted his leg to pee. I couldn’t believe it.
MORE: At the time, you were recently divorced and suffering from a chronic condition that left you feeling undesirable and unhealthy.
J.S.: Yes. In 1999, when I was 34, I almost died as a result of something called a perirectal fistula, an opening in my intestine that leaked fecal matter into my blood, causing me to become septic—and to develop an abscess on my butt. So I had to undergo a middle-of-the-night emergency surgery to drain the abscess. But because of the location of the wound, it wouldn’t heal; it just kept bursting open.
MORE: So there was nothing you could do?
J.S.: Until the fistula in my gut stopped leaking, the abscess couldn’t heal. The doctor said that the only real solution was a surgery called a fistulotomy that had a high risk of leaving me anally incontinent. Rather than risk it, I suffered years of chronic pain.
MORE: You wrote that during this time, you began to lean on your vet for medical advice.
J.S.: Yes, because veterinary medicine was ahead of human medicine. I was out to lunch with one of the veterinarians from Vet-Stem, who told me that Sam’s procedure had been performed on humans outside of the U.S. She said: “Why don’t you look into stem cell regeneration for yourself?” I was desperate. So I went to ClinicalTrials.gov and searched “perirectal fistula stem cells.”
MORE: But you found that the procedure was not FDA approved.
J.S.: In America, stem cell therapy for human patients was, and still is, restricted by the FDA. Dogs can receive more sophisticated treatments than their people can. In Europe and elsewhere there are fewer restrictions.
MORE: So what did you do?
J.S.: I found a clinical trial in Madrid. I emailed the doctor in charge and he said that the trial was over, but offered to share his papers with me and talk to any doctor I could find to do this.
There was a facility in Costa Rica that did stem-cell regeneration for humans, but it ended up closing. Then I found a place in Panama, but because no Panamanian GI surgeon had ever done stem-cell regeneration for my specific condition, the local doctors couldn’t be convinced that it wasn’t experimental and wouldn’t perform it. Another place in Tijuana, Mexico, didn’t want to do it either. At the last minute I heard about two doctors who founded the California Stem Cell Treatment Center. They were doing a procedure almost exactly the same as the one Sam had. These doctors made the treatment FDA compliant by doing what is called a closed surgical procedure, meaning they put the cells back into you the same day they are extracted, without culturing them or storing them.
MORE: On January 9, 2013, you became the first American be treated with her own stem cells for inflammatory bowel disease. What was the outcome?
J.S.: As far as I’m concerned, I’m cured. I look and feel my best ever. I got an intravenous injection of the cells, and also a shot directly into the surgical incision that was made in 1999, with the hope that both would help the wound close up. I felt better right after the injections. I am a journalist, so I knew I had to be skeptical, but then I remembered my dog. I haven’t had a flare-up since the procedure. People stop me on the street and say I look radiant.
MORE: Was there any downside to the procedure?
J.S.: The only bad part is that because we couldn’t culture and save my stem cells, if I have a relapse, I’ll have to undergo the expensive procedure again. My hope is that this book motivates people to demand that the FDA change their policies on stem cell procedures.
MORE: And Sam?
J.S.: Sam lived until he was 17 years old—the average lifespan for a big dog is 10-13 years. My other dog, Sheba, also got the procedure for arthritis and she lived to 16.
Medicine Dog (Lyons Press; $17) is out now.
Next: Pooches Get Poetic
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