Back to Stories & News

August 11, 2015 – Stem cells show remarkable potential as treatments for a variety of equine disorders from orthopedic injuries to organ regeneration, but we still need to answer many questions to unlock the full potential of these biological superheroes. How do we best harvest and culture equine stem cells? Which diseases might respond best to stem-cell therapy?   

Some of the earliest uses of stem cells in veterinarian medicine took place in horses. For more than a decade, Veterinarians have used stem cells to treat a variety of orthopedic problems in horses, including tendonitis, osteoarthritis and bone fracture repair. Although clinicians caution that more studies are needed, the consensus among equine veterinarians is that stem cells are beneficial in the treatment of orthopedic problems in horses. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions concerning stem cell use in horses.

Stem cells fall into two broad categories: embryonic stem cells and adult mesenchymal stem cells. Adult mesenchymal stem cells are the most common type used in veterinary medicine. These cells have the ability to transform themselves into many different tissue types, such as heart cells, nerve cells and blood cells. Adult mesenchymal stem cells can be harvested from a variety of tissues, but in horses they are harvested primarily from fat tissue or bone marrow. Bone marrow is typically harvested from the sternum or the hip. Fat cells most commonly are harvested from the tail head region. The harvested cells are sent to specialized laboratories that take the tissue, isolate the stem cells, and place them in culture media. Once the cells have multiplied several times, they are collected and given back to the patient from whom they were harvested.  

While scientists are constantly discovering new uses for stem cells, the mechanics of how stem cells actually work is not completely understood. Although veterinarians initially believed that the main use for stem cells would be as replacements for damaged cells, it is now known that stem cells produce anti-inflammatory substances and other compounds involved in tissue repair.

Since 2008, Morris Animal Foundation has invested nearly $1 million in research focused on the use of stem cells in the treatment of equine diseases. The foundation continues to be one of the world’s leading funding agencies for studies concerned with equine health issues.

Morris Animal Foundation-funded researchers have explored better ways to harvest and process stem cells for use in horses. Ongoing studies include refinements of these early research efforts, as well as exploring new ways to culture and use stem-cell therapies in horses.

Although more research is needed, stem cell-based therapies hold promise for a wide range of diseases affecting all animal species. Morris Animal Foundation is proud to be at the forefront of animal-focused, stem-cell research, emphasizing our commitment to investing in the best research by the most talented veterinary scientists in the world. You can learn more about equine research at Morris Animal Foundation by visiting Our Research.