Scientists aim to “trick” equine immune system into welcoming stem cells

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Dr Alix Berglund
Dr Alix Berglund

The American Farrier’s Association has given $10,000 to support research into preventing the rejection of equine stem cells in horses.

The research is being conducted by Dr Alix Berglund at North Carolina State University through the Morris Animal Foundation. In conjunction with the work of Drs. Lauren Schnabel and Matthew Fisher, Bergman’s research is focused on “developing new culture techniques that will help stem cells avoid detection by the immune system, thereby allowing for safe and efficacious therapy in horses using donor stem cells.”

Ideally, stem cell therapy should be administered as soon as possible following the time of injury or identification of the initial signs of disease, but since donor cells can be killed by the recipient horse’s immune system if perceived as foreign, the use of this promising treatment is currently limited.

“Stem cell therapies have the potential to improve the outcome of severe and potentially life-ending musculoskeletal diseases in horses, including those of the distal limb and foot,” said Berglund, a Morris Animal Foundation Fellow.

“In particular, stem cells have shown promise for the treatment of deep digital flexor tendon lesions associated with navicular syndrome and for the treatment of laminitis.”

Currently, stem cell treatments are limited by the quality of a patient’s cells and the time it takes to culture them, and donor cells are rejected by a horse’s immune system if perceived as foreign.

Marrow harvested from the patient's bone can be used to grow a supply of stem cell and platelet rich plasma therapies at the EMC's on-site molecular research laboratory.
Harvesting marrow from a patient’s bone to grow a supply of stem cell and platelet rich plasma therapies. © Amy Troppmann

A culture technique that would enable donor stem cells to avoid detection as foreign by the recipient’s immune system would, in turn, greatly enhance the opportunities for conveniently and effectively utilizing stem cell therapy over what is currently possible.

The donation from the American Farrier’s Association (AFA) was made through its Equine Research fund, and the AFA’s Equine Research Chairman, Doug Russo, CJF and resident farrier at Iowa State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, directed the review process for selection of this research.

Lauren Schnabel is Berglund’s graduate advisor  and assistant professor of equine orthopedic surgery, and Matthew Fisher is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who is helping with new 3D culture techniques.

Roxanne Davis, Director of Organizational Giving for Morris Animal Foundation, said: “The Foundation is deeply appreciative of the American Farrier’s Association’s investment in regenerative therapy research which holds great promise for improving the lives of horses. Together, we are advancing equine health by supporting the development of new treatments for devastating diseases and injuries.”

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