Stem Cell Research to Benefit Horse Owners and Trainers


Damage to bones, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons are common in horses used in racing, polo, and equestrian. In a potential breakthrough, Melbourne researchers are trying to harness stem cells to repair these damages.

Horse injuries

Bone, cartilage, ligament, and tendon injuries in horses range from a minor inflammation to a complete rupture. The latter can lead to permanent lameness, eventually ending the competitive life of the horse. Once it suffers a ligament or tendon injury, the horse will have a higher risk of re-injury. Bone injuries also vary in severity. The most serious cases of bone damage can result in the euthanization of the horse.

Reversing the damage

Stem cell research has potential to reverse these damages. Paul Verma of the Monash Institute of Medical Research in Australia and the American company, ViaGen Inc., are working together in developing equine embryonic stem cell lines. Their aim is to create a "bank" of stem cells (genetically matched) preserved for horses.

Verma said they have developed techniques and methods to obtain stem cells from horse embryos. In a pilot study, he said they "have successfully created a number of horse embryonic stem cell lines." He adds that, "The next step will be to look at using these stem cell lines to regenerate tendon, ligament, cartilage and bone cells. Once the stem cells can be coaxed into ‘becoming’ the appropriate tissue cells, they can be transplanted to replace the damaged tissue."

One major benefit of engineering therapeutic cells is that its natural source will be recognized by the immune system of a a horse as its own. Moreover, there is no risk of horses not accepting the tissues derived from the stem cells.

Irina Polejaeva, Chief Scientific Officer of ViaGen, said there will be no risk of rejection since the derived cells are identical genetically to the horse that receives treatment. Specialist equine surgeon, John van Veenendaal, said, "Having access to a less invasive, faster method of treating injured horses would be fantastic."

Implications for the industry

Peter Morgan, a horse trainer well-known for his rehabilitative training for injured horses, said the implications of stem cell research for the industry could be massive. It "could change the way we look at and treat injured racehorses. It would mean injured horses could get back onto the track much more quickly. If we were able to race stud mares successfully for longer, it would increase the value of the mare and her offspring," Morgan said.

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