New Stem Cell Technology Offers Promise to Lame and Injured Horses

In the not-so-distant future, researchers believe they will be able to genetically modify stem cells to create a “vaccine,” so to speak, to treat a large number of musculoskeletal and other disorders in both humans and horses. An Italian research group has made recent strides in further understanding the potential of using stem cells derived from fat (adipose) tissue in this capacity.

Stem cells are the body’s “master cells,” which can, upon stimulation, turn into any one of the more than 200 different cell types found in the body. Stem cell therapy is becoming a more common treatment method for equine joint injuries and joint disease. For example, stem cells can be isolated from equine bone marrow adipose tissue, expanded in cell culture dishes, and then injected back into the horse to help tissue healing.

Previous studies in horses have found beneficial effects of stem cell therapy on tendon healing and joint disease. Researchers have also studied embryonic stem cells.

In addition, earlier this year, Colorado State researcher Laurie Goodrich, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, an assistant professor in equine lameness and surgery, reported the genetic modification of bone marrow-derived stem cells to help bone healing.

The Italian research team, however, has taken stem cell therapy to the next level. The scientists created a method that tricks stem cells into making and secreting “therapeutic molecules” that could be used treat a variety of diseases such as those affecting the nervous system or the musculoskeletal system.

Lead researcher Gaetano Donofrio, DVM, PhD, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in University of Parma’s Department of Animal Health, and colleagues isolated stem cells from equine adipose (fat) tissue and created a gene that they inserted into the DNA of these cells. Next they injected these modified stem cells intramuscularly into the horse’s neck, much like a vaccine.

Once injected, these genetically modified stem cells then secreted a protein with therapeutic properties not normally produced by adipose-derived equine stem cells. The protein that the modified stem cells produced was bovine viral diarrhea virus glycoprotein E2.

This study proves that equine adipose-derived stem cells can be genetically modified to produce any kind of therapeutic factor, such as those that are important in joint, tendon, and ligament disorders. More research is needed before this technology is available commercially, but this development marks a step forward in the field of regenerative medicine not only for horses, but also for humans.

The study, “Virally and physically transgenized equine adipose-derived stromal cells as a cargo for paracrine secreted factors,” was published in the journal BMC Cell Biology in September 2010. The full length article is available for free through PubMed.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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