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Oct. 25, 2023

Using new therapies to heal animals

Q&A with Veterinarian Valerie Johnson

Michigan State University is a top research university in the world and a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, widely regarded as among the top research-intensive institutions in North America. The following story highlights one of the many examples of MSU’s research excellence and innovation.


Headshot of Valerie Johnson.
Valerie Johnson is an assistant professor and small animal critical care veterinarian in MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Courtesy photo.

Valerie Johnson is an assistant professor and small animal critical care veterinarian in MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Over the past 10 years, Johnson has been investigating the effects of mesenchymal stem cells, or MSCs, as therapies for multidrug-resistant infections, immune-mediated diseases and arthritis in the hopes of helping animals heal. She recently received a two-year Career Development Award from the University of Michigan to foster training of early career scientists and promote collaboration between MSU and U-M.

What kind of research are you conducting?

My research involves using biologic therapies, such as stem cell treatments, to combat inflammatory diseases like osteoarthritis and infectious diseases, both viral and bacterial.

What are mesenchymal stem cells or MSCs?

MSCs are cells derived from adult connective tissue such as bone marrow, fat or blood. They are grown and expanded in culture and administered either intravenously or locally to the affected tissue. They have anti-inflammatory properties and also have effects on the immune cells of the body that fight off infection. MSCs promote wound healing by increasing new blood vessel formation, and they dampen down inflammation while also increasing the body’s ability to fight off infection. In addition, they stimulate the body’s own stem cells to become more active, therefore repairing wounds and joint tissue.

How is MSU using MSCs to create a “living bandage” to reduce infections and heal wounds?

MSCs have been demonstrated to resolve multidrug-resistant infections when administered intravenously. In addition to their antimicrobial properties, they also promote wound healing. By creating a bandage that contains live stem cells, we can get the MSCs to the site where they are needed.

Photo of dog.

MSC therapy was used with client-owned dogs with arthritis and was found to offer the dogs substantial pain relief.

In addition, several other technologies have been developed at MSU to assist in wound healing and infected wounds such as antibacterial nanoparticles and oxygen-releasing nanoparticles. Oxygen is essential for wound healing and is sometimes limited by decreased blood flow to the wound.

Utilizing all these technologies, we plan to 3D print a bioscaffold that is made of biocompatible material and seed it with MSC and various nanoparticles. The bioscaffold is made of an inert material that functions to hold all the wound-healing molecules and cells together at the site of the wound while not interfering with wound healing.

This living bandage should then help with infection and promote wound healing. We are in the initial stages of developing this bandage and testing all components together in the lab prior to placing them on animals to determine their effect on wound healing.

How do MSCs help with osteoarthritis in multiple animal species?

Osteoarthritis is an inflammatory condition of the joint, often involving multiple joints. This inflammation causes damage to the joint resulting in a decrease in cartilage, which then causes bone to rub on bone — increasing pain and destruction of joint tissue.

MSCs both decrease inflammation and activate resident cartilage stem cells in the joint.  The joint becomes less painful due to the decrease in inflammation, and the cartilage stem cells become active and start to make more cartilage to cushion the joint. We first tried intravenous MSC therapy for arthritis in older client-owned dogs with severe arthritis and found the dogs experienced substantial pain relief.

Photo of elephant.
Johnson used an elephant as one of her first patients to test if MSCs help with osteoarthritis in animals.

In zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, animals are living longer due to protection from predators and good medical care. However, these animals also get arthritis as they age, and treatments can be limited. Some species, like big cats and giraffes, are prone to certain orthopedic issues and can’t tolerate nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, which can be very difficult to treat and manage their pain.

To determine if we could help these animals, we grew MSC from multiple species. Our first patients were a mountain lion and an elephant who both responded extremely well with decreased pain and increased mobility. Since that time, we have treated elephants, giraffes, camels, bears, tigers, lions, wallabies, flamingoes and many other species.  Generally, the effects last for about a year, at which time we repeat the injection.

What other MSU colleges/departments do you collaborate with?

I collaborate and work closely with the departments of Engineering and Radiology, as well as the MSU stem cell core. Michigan State University is unique, and having two medical colleges — allopathic and osteopathic — in addition to the colleges of Nursing and Veterinary Medicine, provides advantageous opportunities for research and collaboration.

By: Valerie Johnson

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