The treatment involved sourcing stem cells from the affected dogs or other dogs, rather than from embryos. For human use, the idea of using such "adult" stem cells from humans would avoid the controversial method of destroying human embryos to obtain stem cells. The study was carried out at the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, Italy.
The scientists worked with golden retrievers that suffer a crippling form of dystrophy very much like the human one. Researchers studied the effect of repeated injections into the bloodstream of a kind of stem cell extracted from blood vessel walls. The best results appeared when the cells were taken from healthy dogs.
In one of several experiments, three dogs that had not yet shown impairment in walking were injected five times, a month apart, with cells taken from other dogs. One dog completely avoided symptoms and continued to walk well even five months after both the injections and the anti-rejection therapy were stopped. A second dog also did well initially but died suddenly of a heart problem after just two months on the treatment. It’s not clear whether the problem had anything to do with the treatment. The third dog showed partial protection, being able to walk and even run with a limp, but then progressively lost walking ability within a few days after the anti-rejection treatment was stopped.
The researchers also treated two dogs that were severely impaired by the disease. Both gained the ability to move much faster and to jump, and one was even able to run, although neither could use the hind legs normally. One of these dogs rapidly lost walking ability when the anti-rejection treatment was stopped, but the other continued to walk well for five months until succumbing to pneumonia. That’s a common fate for dogs with the genetic condition because of weakness in breathing muscles.
The vice president of translational research at the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Sharon Hesterlee, alled the result one of the most exciting she’s seen in her eight years with the organization. She stressed however that it’s not yet clear whether such a treatment would work in people.