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A runner with a torn tendon has reason to envy a racehorse with the same affliction: horses have treatment options not available to human patients–most notably, injections of adult stem cells that appear to spur healing in these animals with shorter recovery time than surgical treatments. Now the same stem-cell therapies used routinely in competitive horses and increasingly in dogs are beginning to make their way into human testing.

Human stem-cell treatments are advancing quickly in many areas: therapies using adult stem cells derived from both fat and bone marrow are currently being tested for a variety of ailments, including Crohn’s disease, heart disease, and diabetes. (Bone-marrow-derived stem-cell transplants have been used for decades to treat blood diseases and some cancers.) But when it comes to orthopedic injuries, such as torn tendons, fractures, and degenerating cartilage, veterinary medicine has outpaced human care.

Veterinarians and private companies have aggressively tested new treatments for the most common injuries in racehorses, in large part because these animals are so valuable and can be so severely incapacitated by these wounds. “Soft-tissue injury is the number-one injury competitive horses will suffer and can end a thoroughbred horse’s career,” says Sean Owens, a veterinarian and director of the Regenerative Medicine Laboratory, at the University of California, Davis. Veterinary medicine also has much more lax regulations when it comes to treating animals with experimental therapies, allowing these treatments to move rapidly into routine clinical use without clinical trials. “Regulatory oversight of veterinary medicine is minimal,” says Owens. “For the most part, the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] have not waded into the regulatory arena for us.”

Owens’s newly created research center aims to move both animal and human stem-cell medicine forward by conducting well-controlled trials not often performed elsewhere. “Part of our mission is to do basic science and clinical trials and also improve ways of processing cells,” says Owens. The center has a number of ongoing clinical trials in horses–one for tendon tears and one for fractured bone chips in the knee–that are run in a similar way to human clinical trials. The goal is to develop better treatments for horses, as well as to leverage the results to support human studies of the same treatments. Owens is partnering with Jan Nolta,director of the Stem Cell Program, at UC Davis, who will ultimately oversee human testing.

A handful of studies in animals have shown that these stem-cell therapies are effective, allowing more animals to return to racing, reducing reinjury rates, and cutting healing times. VetCell, a company based in the United Kingdom that derives stem cells from bone marrow, has used its therapy on approximately 1,700 horses to date. In a study of 170 jumping horses tracked through both treatment and rehabilitation, researchers found that nearly 80 percent of them could return to racing, compared with previously published data showing that about 30 percent of horses given traditional therapies could return to racing. After three years, the reinjury rate was much lower in stem-cell-treated animals–about 23 percent compared with the published average of 56 percent, says David Mountford, a veterinary surgeon and chief operating officer at VetCell.

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Credit: Vet-Stem

Tagged: Biomedicine, adult stem cells

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