MUNSTER | Fourteen-year-old Harley lay belly up on an operating table Thursday as Dr. Won Han removed a chunk of fat from the Labrador retriever's abdomen.
The veterinarian then handed the sample to his assistants, who chopped up the fat and put it into a test tube. The tissue eventually ended up in a centrifuge that activated the dog's dormant stem cells.
Later in the day, Han injected the cells, along with platelet-rich plasma, back into Harley in the hopes of treating the animal's symptoms from osteoarthritis.
"We have found the fountain of youth," Han said after the surgery Thursday, not able to contain his excitement. "I want to see these dogs active again. I want to see them walking with the client, running with the client."
Han and his veterinary practice, Munster Animal Clinic, recently began offering the stem-cell therapy to give owners of dogs that suffer from pain and other symptoms of aging another treatment option. He said many canines with osteoarthritis also have kidney problems, preventing them from being able to safely take certain pain medications.
While regenerative therapies like these are commonly used by athletes to help with healing time and inflammation, they're fairly new to the world of veterinary care.
"For arthritis, it's a safe bet your pet's going to have a positive response," Trey Smith, director of lab services for MediVet Biologics, said at the Munster clinic Thursday. He noted that the treatment can also be used for dogs with hip displasia, soft-tissue injuries and dermatitis.
The therapy isn't cheap — it ranges from $1,000 to $2,000 based on whether the owner decides to bank the pet's stem cells for future injections — but Han says that it can relieve the dogs' pain and suffering while getting them off daily medications. He said the first two canines the clinic treated have already seen results in just a matter of days.
Donna Wucther's dog, Shadow, also had the stem-cell procedure done Thursday. The retired pipefitter remembers when her lab/setter mix used to be an avid Frisbee catcher. Now Shadow, 14, can hardly walk.
So when Han told her about the new treatment option, she knew she had to do it if there was any hope of improving the quality of Shadow's remaining years.
"It's kind of like giving her the rest of her life," said Wuchter, 56, of Munster. "I love my dog."