Pet Info

Dog’s Stem Cell Brain Transplant

Dementia researchers look to dogs for breakthroughs

The Saturday Paper Dec 10, 2015

A deaf, once-homeless cocker spaniel has become an unlikely weapon in the fight against dementia.

Like more than 342,800 Australians, Timmy the cocker spaniel is living with a form of dementia. Three months ago, he became part of a University of Sydney research project focused on rebooting the brain with stem cells harvested from the subject’s own skin, and in doing so became the first dog worldwide to survive such a transplant. Now Timmy faces a series of ongoing tests designed to measure improvements in his canine condition, which is similar to Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of human senility.

Watch this video from Vet Talk Australia about the Timmy's trail blazing experience and the work that is currently going on to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease in humans. There is also a call for owners of dogs with similar symptoms to contact the research group to see if they are suitable for the trial.

Associate professor Michael Valenzuela, who heads the university’s regenerative neuroscience group, was cautiously optimistic this week in his first set of interviews since the August transplant.

“Our latest results are promising,” says Valenzuela, referring to measurable improvement in Timmy’s dementia-like behaviour that includes senseless barking, staring into space and constant nightly sleep disturbances.

Valenzuela has been working on a cure for dementia for more than a decade, investigating whether missing neurons and their interconnections (synapses) can be replaced using a form of stem cell therapy.

“There is international interest now in the prevention of dementia – that is probably the fastest-growing area of research,” he says. “But if we ever want to find a cure, we are going to need to repair and regenerate those millions of lost brain cells that are the hallmark of dementia.

“This is why our trial is so exciting, because we have been able to do that in rats and now we are trying to do the same in our canine patients.”

In collaboration with neurosurgeon Erica Jacobson and the Faculty of Veterinary Science, Valenzuela moved on to the Dogs+Cells Trial in 2013.

The aim was to investigate whether the dementia-like syndrome canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) can be reversed by injecting a dog with its own stem cells directly into the hippocampus using MRI guidance. The hippocampus is thought to be the brain’s centre of emotion, memory and the autonomic nervous system.

But finding suitable dogs in the community with CCD has been challenging. As well as adhering to the university’s strict ethical code, the team also had to find owners willing to allow often treasured pets to undergo two bouts of general anaesthetic and cell transplantation into the brain.

Only one other dog has reached the transplant stage, but he did not survive due to complications associated with a pre-existing kidney condition.

“Owners are naturally protective of their animals,” says team vet Sarah Toole, who helps find suitable research candidates. 

“The biggest hurdle has been their concern over an old dog’s ability to deal with anaesthetic, but with improvements in modern anaesthetic the alternative [CCD] holds far more risk to an animal’s wellbeing.’’

Toole diagnosed 13-year-old Timmy with CCD in January this year.

Timmy belongs to a Wollongong couple, Tony and Michele Leeder-Smith, who adopted him at 10 months when several other families were unable to cope with his congenital deafness.

 “He chose us really. He walked through the door and made it pretty clear he didn’t plan on leaving,” says Michele.

His disability, however, did not make him any less of a normal, naughty, shoe-chewing puppy who loved cuddles and attention.

“It was funny to watch him nudge books out of Michele’s hand when she’d sit down for a quiet read,” recalls Tony.

The team hopes to involve more dogs in the research and Valenzuela says if it is successful, the next step will be a human trial.

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Note: Michele Tydd is a freelance journalist and can be contacted on