New UC-Davis Stem Cell Lab Focuses on Horses

New UC-Davis Stem Cell Lab Focuses on Horses
Photo: UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
Dr. Larry Galuppo of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine is preparing to inject 12 million stem cells grown from a bone marrow sample he collected two weeks previously from his patient.

A revolutionary technique may help horses with potentially career or life-ending injuries heal themselves.

Stem cell injection therapy for injured horses can dramatically cut recovery times and eliminate surgical scar tissue as a complicating factor, doctors at the University of California-Davis believe.

"For some time, we've been trying to figure out a way to do something other than make a better scar," said Dr. Sean Owens, the director of the university's new Regenerative Medicine Laboratory during introductory remarks for the center's official unveiling May 18.

Along with Dr. Gregory Ferraro, the university's director for equine health, and surgeon Dr. Larry Galuppo, Owens says he is witnessing dramatic improvements in bone, tendon and ligament repair as the result of the new research. Often times, they are getting results in "cases where there was not much hope at all," Galuppo says.

Had the technology existed even a few years ago, Barbaro's chances of recovery from a shattered right hind leg would have been greatly enhanced, Ferraro believes.

"The team at the University of Pennsylvania did a wonderful, wonderful job with Barbaro," he says. "The problem was that the recovery was so long it gave laminitis a chance to set in to the opposite foot. A much shorter recovery time would have lessened the chance of laminitis and made his survival chances much better."

There are now four university-based veterinary stem cell labs in the United States, including UC Davis.

Owens oversees the UC-Davis facility, which has eight full-time staff, three post-doctoral students and about $800,000 in new equipment for the collection, processing and preservation of stem cells. Samples are collected from bone marrow, umbilical cord blood or placental tissue. No embryonic stem cells are used, Owens emphasizes, sparing researchers the sort of ethical dilemmas that have stalled development in the field on the human side.

"We are using your cells to fix you," said Owens, a veterinary professor. He compares the development of stem cell injection therapy to the introduction of penicillin.

Traditional surgery leaves scar tissue, which leaves less tensile strength, often leading to immobilization, Owens explains. “What you are left with as far as therapy are anti-inflammatories and rest.”

Drugs, he says, can have beneficial effects in alleviating pain in orthopedic injuries but "do not have the wonderful potential that we thought they would have years ago. (Stem cell injection) is the first therapy to come along in 50 years that is aimed at therapeutic cure rather than pharmacological manipulation. If we are 1/20th as effective as we think we can be, we will be thrilled."

Mending of bones and soft tissue are greatly enhanced by the regeneration of new cells, cutting recovery times by half or more, Ferraro says. He describes the process as "revolutionary."

"This is not drug-based therapy," Ferraro says. "We're talking about biological medicine. So we are recreating natural tissue with cells. It has the real promise of cure."

Dick Randall, a Cupertino, Calif., reining horse enthusiast, and his wife Carolyn provided the university with $2.5 million in seed money for the laboratory. He decided the project deserved support after he brought one of his champions to Davis with high suspensory damage, usually a career-ending injury.

"He was back in the ring in 90 days," Randall said. "Needless to say, I was excited."

Since then, he's had nine others treated with stem cells for injuries and all returned to training. "By 30 days (after treatment), we'll be back walking them, 60 days starting (to exercise) and 90 days back in training," Randall said. "Without stem cell injections, you are lucky if you can get back on a horse working him in 12 months."

Ferraro says he has been getting a positive response from farm managers and veterinarians from around the country. A collection kit has been developed so that horse owners or attending vets can provide bone marrow samples directly to UC-Davis researchers, who can produce the stem cell therapy doses in about two weeks. The processing cost is about $1,800 in most cases.

"The stem cell, with its ability to recreate, repair or revitalize damaged organs or tissues, is rapidly changing all of medicine," he says. "The application of stem cell science to treating horses is advancing so quickly that within three to five years, the treatments that are currently being provided for orthopedic repair in athletic horses will seem crude in hindsight."

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