A procedure combining surgery with stem cell treatment has aided two bulldog puppies with spina bifida and a team of UC Davis researchers hopes to test the therapy in human clinical trials.
The puppies were treated with a therapy developed at UC Davis to help preserve lower-limb function in children with spina bifida, according to a university news release.
Spina bifida occurs when spinal tissue improperly fuses in utero causing cognitive, mobility, urinary and bowel disabilities. Approximately 1,500 to 2,000 children in the United States are born with the condition each year.
Because dogs with the birth defect have little control of their hindquarters, they typically are euthanized as puppies.
After their post-surgery checkup at 4 months old, the sibling pups, Darla and Spanky, showed off their ability to walk, run and play.
“The initial results of the surgery are promising, as far as hind limb control,” veterinary neurosurgeon Beverly Sturges said in a written statement. “Both dogs seemed to have improved range of motion and control of their limbs.”
The dogs have since been adopted and continue to do well at home in New Mexico.
The dogs’ procedure involved surgical techniques developed by fetal surgeon Diana Farmer of UC Davis Health together with a cellular treatment developed by stem cell scientists Aijun Wang and Dori Borjesson, director of the university’s Veterinary Institute for Regenerative Cures.
Farmer pioneered the use of surgery prior to birth to improve brain development in children with spina bifida. She later showed that prenatal surgery combined with cells derived from the human placenta held in place with a cellular scaffold helped research lambs born with the disorder walk without noticeable disability, the news release said.
Sturges wanted to find out whether the surgery-plus-stem-cell approach could give dogs more normal lives, as well as better chances of survival and adoption.
Darla and Spanky were transported from Southern California Bulldog Rescue to the UC Davis Veterinary hospital when they were 10 weeks old. They were the first dogs to receive the treatment, this time using canine instead of human placenta-derived cells.
The dogs’ treatment also occurred after birth, because the prenatal diagnosis of spina bifida is not performed on dogs, Sturges said. The disorder becomes apparent between 1 and 2 weeks of ages, when puppies show hind-end weakness, poor muscle tone and abnormal use of their tails.
The research team wants dog breeders to send more puppies with spina bifida to UC Davis for treatment and refinements that will help researchers correct another hallmark of spina bifida, incontinence. Although Darla and Spanky are mobile and doing well, they still require diapers, the news release said.