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Strides in Equine Stem Cell Research

By Kelley Weir

Windy Bill was an exceptional thoroughbred who had spent the first part of his life on the racetrack. He was long-legged, lean and extremely tall.

“He was 17 hands of striking, handsome athleticism,” says MK Wohlenhaus, volunteer and event coordinator for Morris Animal Foundation. “It’s one of the reasons I bought him.”

At the end of Windy Bill’s racing career, Wohlenhaus was there to help find the horse a new purpose in life. Windy Bill and four other horses she had purchased were about to become hunter jumpers, if they enjoyed it enough to learn.

“Bill took to jumping like he was born to do it,” Wohlenhaus says. “He could fly over jumps. He was fearless. No hesitation.”

But the combination of his breed, his time spent racing and his enthusiasm for jumping, led Bill to an injury of the tendons and ligaments around his front fetlock joint. Looking back, Wohlenhaus wonders if adult stem cell therapy had been around in the 1980s, could it have saved his leg and kept him doing what he enjoyed.

Major Strides Since the 1980s

Many horses who experience injuries like Bill’s are Thoroughbreds or former racers, who are more prone to ligament problems. But any horse can suffer these injuries. Most injuries occur in the forelimbs as they bear 60 percent of the horse’s weight and are therefore most prone to being overburdened.

In the old days horses were simply “turned out” or not worked for six months to heal a tendon or ligament injury and then rechecked. Today, instead of just turning a horse out, the thinking is to decrease inflammation and rest the horse to prevent any further damage. More and more, veterinarians are using adult stem cell therapy to help treat injuries.

A cutting-edge approach to treating tendon and ligament injuries is to inject adult stem cells into the damaged tissues; however, little research has been done to determine the best source of cells for this type of treatment. With funding from Morris Animal Foundation, Dr. Jennifer Barrett and Dr. Nathaniel White, from Virginia Tech, are evaluating adult stem cells isolated from various sites to find out which are the most effective for treatment.

Stem cells isolated from fat, for example, do not form cartilage as effectively as stem cells isolated from bone marrow. The team has isolated stem cells from bone marrow and from tendon and fat, and they hope to understand more about the differences between these three types of stem cells. To do this, they will stimulate the cells in vitro and see how easily the cells become different tissues: bone, cartilage and fat. Because little is currently known about how to stimulate stem cells to differentiate into tendon, the researchers hypothesize that it might be preferable to use stem cells derived from tendons as they may already be partially committed to differentiate into tendon.

They will compare these three sources of adult stem cells—bone marrow, fat and tendon—and determine how best to prepare these cells to regenerate tendon. Results of this study will benefit dogs as well as horses, as tendon and ligament injuries are also common in high-energy dog breeds like Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers and cattle dogs.  

Treatments with adult stem cells hold the promise to enable horses today to have a much better chance to recover from career-ending injuries. For Windy Bill, the advanced treatment came too late, but he was able to spend the rest of his days on a family pasture. Wohlenhaus is just happy to see equine medicine evolving in a way that clearly and positively affects horses’ lives.    

Support Morris Animal Foundation’s efforts to improve equine health.


Posted by MAFon April 21, 2011.

Categories: Animal health, Equine health, Horse health

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