PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Dr. Mike Hutchinson, DVM performed his first stem cell procedure in 2008. Nearly 12 years later, he can tell you all about his first case.
“It was a lab mix. It couldn’t get up on this floor. We tried to help it up, and it was having trouble walking so we treated it,” says Hutchinson.
“Fourteen days later, it came for suture removal, and it was already walking in here. He even put his front feet on the table.”
Based on early success stories like that, KDKA-TV featured a 10-year-old German Shepherd named Angel.
When we met her, Angel limped noticeably from arthritis in her hips. After stem cell treatment, the dog’s owner Jane Fornear says her beloved pet looked like a new dog.
“Within 48 hours, her eyes were clear,” explained Fornear.
She had Angel show us how much better she felt: she asked the big shepherd to sit in front of her, then told Angel, “Give me your paw.”
WATCH: Angel’s Journey To Recovery
Angel immediately lifted her right paw and put in in Fornear’s waiting hand about 3 feet off the ground.
Jane released the paw and said, “Give me your other paw.” Just as quickly, Angel lifted her left front paw off the ground and put it in Fornear’s other hand.
You could almost hear the tears building in Fornear’s voice as she petted her dog’s face and ears. “We couldn’t give our paw before because our arms and legs hurt too much, didn’t they?”
Fast forward to 2014. Panzer is a large breed mix who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his legs.
Dr. Mike told Panzer’s owner the dog would be a great candidate to use injected stem cells to help speed healing in the joint.
Sharon Germain remembers that conversation like it just happened: “I just sat there going ‘really?’ And I said anything to make things heal better and make him feel better. I was on board immediately.”
Seven months after having the ACL repair surgery with stem cells, KDKA was there with Sharon watching Panzer tear through the November snow in Germain’s backyard like a hyperactive puppy.
“Seeing is believing. It’s just — ” Germain paused and then let out a big sigh. “It just — does your heart good to see this.” Germain was fully convinced it had worked for her dog.
Since those early surgeries, Hutchinson has never stopped talking about using stem cells to treat animals that are in pain.
In 2015, he told KDKA, “It’s just rewarding to hear from grateful pet owners over and over and over,” said the Ohio State Vet School graduate. “It’s why I do it.”
Panzer lived four years after his initial stem cell treatment. Germain said he never slowed down because his pain was gone.
“It was like nothing ever happened to him. It was like he never even had surgery,” says Germain. “I mean, outside of a little white hair where the surgery incision was made, that was it.”
Many other animals have had similar results. Hutchinson has now given stem cells to more than 1,100 animals. Many of the pets are dogs, but he has also worked with race horses as well as racing camels in the Middle East.
WATCH: Panzer’s Experience With Stem Cells
He has lectured and scrubbed in on stem cell surgeries around the world, Canada, South America, Australia, and across the United States.
Yet the majority of the surgeries are done at his Animal General veterinary practice in Cranberry, Butler County — everyday pets like Baxter who had not one, but two torn ACLs.
“They were both completely severed,” explained Baxter’s owner Nicole Mountain of O’Hara Township.
“He had no mobility. He had no use of his back legs. My husband Jeff was carrying him outside to use the bathroom.”
Baxter is a not a little dog. He is a 95 pound Staffordshire-terrier mix. He tore those knee ligaments in 2014.
Another orthopedic vet repaired the injured joints with a procedure called PTLO surgery. It involved putting metal plates in his back legs. The Mountains were warned that it would be a long and painful recovery — for their dog and for them.
Mountain agrees — saying it was every bit as bad as they warned — and then some.
“Baxter was moaning in pain,” Mountain says. “He was pumped up with so much pain medication he was vomiting. He couldn’t hold food down. He couldn’t move.”
Eighteen months later, Baxter was mostly healed from the surgeries, but he was still in significant pain. That is when the Mountains learned of Dr. Hutchinson’s use of stem cells.
Nicole was ready to go from the moment she heard about the procedure. Her husband Jeff wasn’t exactly sold.
“I’ll be honest, when Nicole sent us out there, I thought it was crazy. You know, I honestly did,” said Jeff Mountain. “I said you’re sending us to this Voodoo doctor to do this stem cell treatment. I said, ‘Where is it going to stop?'”
Mountain had lived through the ordeal of helping Baxter heal from his ligament problems.
“My husband was calling from Samsonite because we had one of those Help-Me harnesses, and he was lifting him up and carrying him out like luggage.”
When they heard about how other dogs had been helped by stem cells, they decided to give it a try. Dr. Hutchinson recalls the conversation with the Mountains at their initial consultation.
“They wanted to know if the stem cells would help the arthritis, and I said that’s exactly what I would treat it with. That would be my gold therapy for that so we did that, and that had a very positive response as well. Then we were able to bank some of those cells for the future,” recalls Hutchinson.
It didn’t take long for the Mountains to see that Baxter was visibly better.
“Within about a month, we started to really see him jumping up on counters for treats,” said Jeff Mountain. “You know, when we went out to walk him, he is back to running.”
Mountain said that wasn’t the only change she noticed.
“He had this almost — it sounds almost funny to say — he looked very white,” she paused to think. “It was almost like his eyes were brighter. He was just a brighter dog. He just looked like, there was a visible difference in him.”
Dr. Mike has heard it all many times.
“People say it looks like their dogs are younger because their eyes are brighter. They are happier. They are in less pain, and that’s a great reward for stem cells,” explains Dr. Mike.
One of prospective patients’ first questions is often “how much will it cost?” When Hutchinson started, each procedure ran about $3,200. Now it has come down to about $1,800.
It can be less than that. The Mountains have a pet insurance on Baxter, and the stem cell therapy was covered by their policy.
“I thought it was cost effective too,” reflected Jeff Mountain, “compared to other things that we’ve spent money on for surgeries and treatments for the dogs.”
Let’s go back to Panzer, Sharon Germain’s beloved dog. He lived nearly four years after surgery, before dying about a year ago. In retrospect — knowing what she knows now, would she spend the out-of-pocket money to do stem cell treatment again on her dog?
“Absolutely. Absolutely. The best money spent. Without hesitation,” says Germain.
The next question: would you do it again for another dog?
Germain didn’t even flinch. “Absolutely. I would do it again for me.”
She knows all about that too. After seeing how well it worked for her dog, she had stem cells injected into her chronically painful knee. Like her dog, she says her pain was gone in a matter of days, and it hasn’t come back.
Dr. Hutchinson stresses stem cells are not a cure-all. They can’t be used for every ailment, and Hutchinson says that in every lecture he does on stem cells.
“I think it’s incumbent upon all my colleagues to be ethical and pick the right cases,” says Hutchinson.
“It’s not a panacea. It’s for certain cases. Neurological dogs, dogs that are falling over, they have nerve damage. Yeah, there might be a stem cell compassionate use for that — and that might be able to help that dog, but I’m not going to pretend like that’s the common case.”
How long do they last?
“On average, it doesn’t last a lifetime and it lasts maybe a year, a year and a half.”
Hutchinson stopped for a second, then continued, “But that’s huge in a dog’s life. They have a short life expectancy. So, if we get a year to year-and-a-half of comfort and pain-free time, that’s fantastic. Then we can come back and re-treat them, and expect the similar response when we re-treat them.”
Baxter’s “mom” Nicole Mountain agrees wholeheartedly that his quality of life is much better than it was before stem cells.
“He does not get pain medication. He does not get anti-inflammatories,” she claims.
“He doesn’t take anything that’s ‘keeping him comfortable.’ So for us to have something natural that will last ten, eleven months — and then we do again, we’re thrilled with that.”
Dr. Mike harvested enough cells from the original procedure on Baxter that they froze enough for multiple follow-up treatments. Because of that foresight, all they have to do is inject the thawed stem cells into Baxter. Those tune-ups cost about $200 per treatment.
Hutchinson can’t say enough about what he has learned since his first stem cell surgery in 2008.
“I want to do this every day in my practice because I’ve been a vet for a long time, 30 plus years, and when you see the kind of results that we’re seeing, you know it can’t be denied that any veterinarian would want to do what I’m doing.”