Stem-Cell Research: Potential Benefits

Obtaining stem cells at birth could help in the future.

Harvesting a horse's stem cells at birth through the umbilical cord or as a young horse may give it an advantage later if it develops health problems. Researchers from the University of California-Davis spoke to a group of owners and breeders March 22 at the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association office about stem-cell research they are performing, and the future of stem-cell therapy.

Dr. Greg Ferraro, Dr. Larry Galuppo, and Dr. Sean Owens of U.C. Davis discussed a five-year research program currently under way at the university. They are studying a wide range of topics about equine stem-cell therapy, from determining the best source of stem cells in horses to how to best store and culture them, as well as how to target specific injuries with the cells.

The goal of the seminar, sponsored by the Thoroughbred Owners of California, California Thoroughbred Foundation, and Southern California Equine Foundation, was to educate owners and breeders about stem-cell research so they can make informed choices about the many companies offering stem-cell services. The researchers, while noting that most evidence on whether stem-cell therapy works on such things as bowed tendons and ligament injuries is anecdotal, said they will conduct clinical trials in the hope of soon offering proof it does work.

“Stem-cell therapy is being used—veterinary practitioners are using it,” Ferraro said. “Over the next three to five years, what we’re doing now is going to look very crude compared to what we’re going to be doing.”

Because of what the future holds, the researchers recommended people with valuable performance horses bank stem cells for future use. Their studies have shown umbilical-cord stem cells appear to work best, and that cells harvested from younger horses work better than those from older horses.

Thus, they recommended harvesting umbilical-cord cells at foaling or, failing that, collecting cells from bone marrow when the animal is a yearling or a young racehorse. That way, if a horse injures itself in training or racing, the cells will be available to treat the problem.

Also, because stallions can live for many years, the researchers recommended that if a young stallion has no stem cells banked when he goes to stud, the owner collect and store some at that time. Then, if the stallion develops joint problems as an older horse, for example, young stem cells would be available.

If collected, transported, and frozen correctly, stem cells can last for many years. Owens said the oldest human stem cells have been frozen for about 30 years and are still viable.

“We can successfully bank these cells, freeze them, thaw them, and then grow them up again,” Owens said. “So we know that for the life of horses, these cells—as long as they maintain (the proper) temperature kinetics and parameters—are going to be good.”

Another aspect the researchers plan to study is whether stem cells can be successfully used on unrelated horses.

“This is a very exciting new area of medicine,” Ferraro said. “It’s the first area of medicine in generations that’s not based on drugs. We’re talking about biological medicine, not pharmacological therapy. That’s why the potential is so great.”