Backing for study exploring stem cell therapy’s use in horses

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While there is a lot of promise for stem cell therapies, and no shortage of pre-clinical studies around the world, not one stem-cell therapy — for humans or animals — has yet been approved for use in North America.
Image by Jan-martijn Verlaan

The promising but still puzzling field of stem cell therapy for joint injuries has received two years of funding for research that could ultimately help humans and horses. The work will focus on the technique’s use in the horse’s stifle joint.

An interdisciplinary group of researchers from across the University of Calgary campus has received support from the New Frontiers in Research Fund to explore novel stem cell therapies to treat challenging joint injuries.

Joint injuries involving both soft tissue and cartilage damage are common in both equine and human athletes, and poor healing can lead to chronic joint pain. Researchers are studying how stem cell therapy may help with healing.

“Our equine athletes are no different (than humans), and this opportunity to put our minds together to investigate treating these challenging injuries is really exciting for both veterinary and human medicine,” says Dr Holly Sparks, assistant professor of large animal surgery in the university’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

“We’re looking at utilizing regenerative medicine approaches to treat these injuries early, in a way that will hopefully encourage more functional healing in the short term and reduce joint pain in the long term,” Sparks says.

While there is a lot of promise for stem cell therapies, and no shortage of pre-clinical studies around the world, not one stem-cell therapy — for humans or animals — has yet been approved for use in North America.

“There has been a disproportionately large amount of work done in this area, but we’re no closer to an answer because there’s so much variability in how people conduct this research,” says Dr Roman Krawetz, an associate professor specializing in stem cells and tissue engineering at the university’s Cumming School of Medicine.

The collaborative research team also includes Dr Brent Edwards, associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, who researches biomechanics and musculoskeletal injuries; Dr Mike Scott, associate professor at the veterinary school and surgeon at Moore Equine in Calgary; and Dr Arindom Sen, a professor in the Schulich School of Engineering, who studies how to scale up production of stem cells.

Sparks says the interdisciplinary team approach being employed is the key to the work.

The researchers will apply the “highest possible standards” in consistently producing and applying stem cells for the specific application to the stifle joint, or the equine equivalent of the human knee. As well as strict quality control on how stem cells are grown, collected and manipulated, the team has the clinical knowledge to assess the outcomes.

“Did this have any benefit? And if so, where? Did it regrow cartilage? Did it reduce inflammation? Did it reduce pain?” Krawetz says. “Whatever answer we get is going to be important to the field. If we can show that it’s beneficial, great. If we show that it’s not beneficial, I think that that’s equally important.”

The research will not only help guide veterinarians and horse-owners managing these types of injuries, but will also add significantly to the emerging body of knowledge around stem cells.

“While cell-based therapy shows considerable promise for treating musculoskeletal injuries like those studied here, there’s still a lot to be learned about how stem cell therapy may work,” Sparks says. “Hopefully, we can shed some light on that with this project.”

Dr Roman Krawetz, PhD, is an associate professor at the departments of Cell Biology & Anatomy, and Surgery at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a member of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health at the CSM. He is the Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Bone and Joint Stem Cell Biology.

Dr William Brent Edwards, PhD, is an associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the CSM. He is also a member of the McCaig Institute.

Dr Arindom Sen, PhD, is a professor in Chemical & Petroleum Engineering with the Schulich School of Engineering and a member of the McCaig Institute.

Dr Holly Sparks, DVM, PhD, is an assistant professor in Veterinary Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and a member of the McCaig Institute. She is Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Equine Regenerative Medicine.

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