If your 10-year-old dog has trouble walking, can't jump on to a sofa or run, it might have severe osteoarthritis in its hips and knees. Drugs have only provided minor relief for this condition, but now a breakthrough procedure is giving animals in Asia a new lease of life. Developed by Medivet in Sydney, the drug-free Adipose Stem Cell Procedure Kit enables Hong Kong veterinarians to offer regenerative therapy to pets suffering from conditions such as osteoarthritis and hip dysplasia, ligament and cartilage injuries, and many other degenerative diseases. The new therapy has had 'a profound effect' on animals, says Pittsburgh-based veterinarian Mike Hutchinson. First performed on horses in 2003, then small animals five years later in the United States, the procedure used to take two days and involved sending dormant cells to an overnight processing laboratory in California, where they would become active. But veterinarians can now perform this cell-activation process with the kits in their own clinic within a few hours, says Hutchinson, who has been a veterinarian for 24 years. The therapy can also reduce pet-owners' costs from approximately US$3,000 to US$4,000, to US$1,500-US$1,800, and significantly lower stem cells' death rate from 41 per cent to less than 1 per cent, he says. Stem cells are harvested from about five to 20 grams of fat (about a tablespoonful) in the animal, Hutchinson says. 'With the new technology, millions of stem cells can be taken from the animal's own sample of fat ... It's very simple to collect, and a much easier procedure than spaying or neutering a dog,' he says. Previous stem-cell therapies involved harvesting from bone marrow, an invasive and painful procedure, but now by harvesting from fat, the stem-cell count is about 1,000 times higher, with about 8.9 million stem cells per gram of fat, Hutchinson says. 'Harvesting the cells takes about 10-15 minutes under anaesthesia, so there is some risk,' the veterinarian says. However, in the 100 stem-cell procedures he has performed, he says he hasn't had one bad reaction or infection. Having harvested the cells, veterinarians use the kit to separate dormant stem cells from the fat, and then activate them with a solution and LED light. Within a few hours, Hutchinson says, 'the cells are ready to be injected back into the animal's bad joints or intravenously'. These stem cells 'go to the inflamed area and attach themselves', he says. 'It's like velcro sticking to carpet.' The next stage of healing, Hutchinson says, results in these adult stem cells becoming multipotent, or having the ability to turn into a different number of regenerative tissues. 'Some will turn into bone, some will attract calcium or vitamin D within the body, or it will send a signal to other areas,' Hutchinson explains. 'So far we have found that stem cells can attract 166 different [components]. It's miraculous that we are using our own body to repair ourselves.' Other adult stem cells can become cartilage, joint surfaces, more fat, nerves, and heart and liver tissue. Five years ago, veterinary surgeon and researcher Peter Britton performed the first successful stem-cell regenerative therapy in dogs. Since then, he has seen results last from about 12 months to more than four years. 'The technology has improved dramatically, Medivet [has] managed to isolate more cells by a factor of 10, and this technology can change the whole field,' says Britton, who is the principal veterinarian at St George Animal Hospital in Sydney. 'With a much higher cell number, you are seeing faster and better results than five years ago. This biotechnology world is changing. Normally, we would have drugs [to treat illnesses] by pharmaceutical companies, and they would inhibit an enzyme or block a receptor, but stem cells [are] different. This is part of the body's repair mechanisms, and we've discovered that fat is very good for stem-cell [harvesting].' There are three traditional treatments for arthritic dogs, Britton says. The animal can lose weight, take anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve its pain, or take nutraceuticals, that are food or food products providing health benefits. The latter, Britton says, may or may not help, but at least it won't harm or worsen a dog's condition. 'But stem-cell therapy for any case of arthritis is a good option,' he says. 'It doesn't cause any bad reaction because it's self-to-self. I've done 20 procedures this year, and these animals are in pain, but afterwards a lot of them are pain-free. Your reaction to this might be dubious, but I too am very cynical. I think it comes down to how remarkable it is. It's a technology that is new and cutting edge.' One of the leading equine veterinarians in the US, Joseph Yocum, did his first stem-cell procedure in March. 'It's very easy to collect the stem cells from a horse. They have less fat than a dog, so I need to collect about 40 grams,' says Yocum, who has worked at Overbrook Farm near Lexington, Kentucky for more than 20 years. He says the results 'have been good' on horses with bone lesions. As horses are bigger animals than dogs, they take longer to heal, Yocum says. 'After 30 days it's remarkable, they are walking better and more soundly. 'After five months, it gets more normal and the lesion is almost imperceptible; it's a great advancement over other treatments. All of this stuff is so new, it's very encouraging.' Hutchison says he never expected to see this technology in his lifetime. 'I still can't believe what I'm seeing,' he says. 'It's unbelievable.'