Meet Dr. Katerina Čeh, CEO of Animacel
The beginning of 21st century was hallmarked by the potential that stem cell therapies were promising, ranging from diabetes, arthritis, spinal cord injuries and all sorts of cancers. However so far very few applications have actually seen the light of routine use. Nevertheless there is a growing number of blood banks, which normally use liquid nitrogen to store stem cells from umbilical cord blood, dental pulp, liposuction and other tissues.
The reason for this is that in some cases stem cells can cause the growth of tumors (teratomas) when injected into an organism and so the legislation became very stringent about stem cell treatment in humans. But for animals the legislation is much looser; and there are many people that would like their pets, working or sport animals to get state-of-the-art treatment. Listen to the interview with a CEO of Animacel, company providing such solutions.
“We isolate the cells from the tissue, multiply them and prepare them for injection into the joint or ligament.”
KLEMEN: Hello Splice, I am here with Katerina Čeh, CEO of the company Animacel. Animacel is working with treatments of animals with stem cells. So, Katerina, can you tell me a little bit more about what your company is doing.
KATERINA: Hello Klemen, it is nice to be here with you. Our company was founded in 2011. The founders were Prof. Dr. Gregor Majdič, he was my mentor at PhD studies, me and a smaller investor. We use mesenchymal stem cells to treat diseases of locomotor apparatus of dogs and horses mainly. We’ve also treated three cats until now. This treatment actually uses mesenchymal stem cells from animal tissue. We isolate the cells from the tissue, multiply them and prepare them for injection into the joint or ligament.
Legislation is basically very loose, especially in European Union.
KLEMEN: So, stem cells are now really big also in humans, there are a lot of emerging companies that store stem cells, but there aren’t really a lot of treatments yet available with these cells, apart for maybe leukemia. I am guessing that treating animals is much easier in terms of legislation. What kind of treatments are possible for animals?
KATERINA: Yes, as you said, legislation is basically very loose, especially in European Union. What they are preparing now is a new legislation regarding animal health. What it will be allowed is the treatment with autologous stem cells, this is what we use. Basically we don’t have donor cells, so each animal has a medicine prepared for itself. So it is patient ready preparation. In the European Union legislation is very loose. We were in contact with different parties in EU, in Germany, Austria and Slovenia, and they don’t know where to put us basically. Now in Slovenia there is one law that should go in action at the end of September that could potentially have a big negative effect on our company because all the treatment and preparation of the cells and export and import of the cells for human and also for animals is not allowed. So, the parties involved in the country don’t want to talk with us basically. We wanted to have some discussion with them but we didn’t come very far. So, we hope in the next months we will have someone on the other side so we could talk about it. Now our company is working already in Germany, so we contacted their legislative body and we haven’t got any answer yet, but as far as we know, European law is above all, so we don’t have any problem regarding these autologous treatments.
KLEMEN: What about concrete examples? I know you’ve treated some animals very successfully. Can you share with us some success stories?
KATERINA: We started basically with the dogs at the beginning and after maybe six months we treated first horses. We started in Slovenia on Veterinary Faculty and also with some small clinics in Slovenia. One of great stories is a story about the dog, it was a female dog, one year old. It had a problem on six different joints. It was so bad osteoarthritis that you could hear the creaking of the bones from three meters. It was really terrible. This animal couldn’t run, couldn’t walk, it was in constant pain. And the only possibility that veterinarian could see and also the last thing, because he tried many painkillers and everything, was treatment with stem cells. And the owners came from southern part of Austria to the clinic in Slovenia, we took the stem cells and injected them in five affected joints. After one month the owner called us and she was so happy. She said: “My dog is finally running, she enjoys the life, she changed her character. Before she was very subordinate, because she was afraid of the pain and all the dogs were she was the lowest and now she is really huge German shepherd female, really dominant and she really enjoys life”. So, it is really nice, you know, when you are working sometimes and you just don’t know what to do and you have enough of all the problems that occur and then some owner calls you and tells you a story like this. It is really amazing. And it is the same with horses. We usually treat ligament injuries but also osteoarthritis. After some injuries that occur, for example when some bone chips away, they make an operation and they take the chip out and then osteoarthritis occurs usually. And then we treat these horses. For example there was a horse that couldn’t walk on one leg, because it had such a bad osteoarthritis that the only solution was injection to terminate life. And the owners said: “Ok, we want to try this.” And we prepared the stem cells, we even prepared much more that we usually do, a few millions more and this horse is now running. And the owner is so happy.
KLEMEN: Is it still alive?
KATERINA: Still alive. Because otherwise it would be dead for a long time, one year and a half already. So, yes, it is really amazing.
We have quite a lot of owners that have problems with arthritis and they call us saying: “You’ve helped my dog, can you help me?”
KLEMEN: From another perspective, there are a lot of people suffering from these diseases as well. There is a strict legislation for working with stem cells on human that does not allow this because of some consequences that this treatment might have. Do you have some examples where the animals would get some teratomas or any other negative side effects from these stem cells?
KATERINA: In one way I can understand, we should be very careful and we should think about these treatments for the usage in human health, we still live much longer than animals do. But for example, even horses can live forty years. Especially the horses that are really connected with their owners, so they are pets, they are not just sport horses or something like that. And we made a small research, actually we contacted most of our customers – owners of the animals on dog population and we made a survey with a small questionnaire and after we checked all the data, occurrence of some teratomas or carcinoma were just like in the normal population of dogs. So we could not correlate that there would be anything different because of the treatment with stem cells. And also the changes that occurred, were also not connected to the joints or something like that. Because we have to be aware that we inject stem cells directly into the joint and the joint is a closed space where the stem cells really stay in the joint, they don’t go into the blood and they don’t flow around. We don’t have any problems with that. But we have quite a lot of owners that have problems with arthritis and they call us saying: “You’ve helped my dog, can you help me?” And I say: “I’m sorry, but I can’t.” And they say: “But I will sign everything, just give me that, it helps my dog, so I really want it.” But unfortunately I cannot do it.
KLEMEN: If there was a legislation change that it would allow humans to be treated in such a way, would your company also go in that direction?
KATERINA: Yes, absolutely. Of course there would be a huge investment needed, because of the laboratory space that it should be in different regulation than it is now and we would need new equipment and everything. But yes, we would like to present ourselves and we would like to be like a connection between veterinary and human health in a few years to help also with human health and the problems that are occurring.
KLEMEN: To end on a more personal note. You are a mother of two children, you have PhD in veterinary sciences and you run your own company, obviously a successful company. How do you manage all that?
KATERINA: With help of grandparents (laughs). Yes, basically when I think about myself and the things I do in my life, I think that this is a normal flow. To me all this is normal, what I should do, I wouldn’t change a thing in my life. What you need is a good organization and of course help, because children need to be taken care of, they need someone to rely on and I try to be with them as much as possible, but my parents and my husbands’ parents help us a lot. With my husband we are both veterinarians each in its own field. So, I think good organization, wish to do good things, good plan and passion that makes it through the days, through the months and through the year.
KLEMEN: So you are both veterinarians? Do you have any pets?
KATERINA: (laughs) Yes, we have two cats and two geckos, it’s Madagascar grey gecko and we would like to have a dog, but I don’t have time to walk it, so unfortunately just cats and geckos.
KLEMEN: Thank you Katerina. That was Katerina Čeh from Animacel.
KATERINA: Thank you very much.