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Stem Cell Therapy Holds Promise for Equine Tendinitis

Pet Column for the week of October 3, 2011

Related information:

Related site - Equine Services at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Andrea Lin
Information Specialist

Tennis elbow, anyone? In people, tendinitis of the shoulder, ankle, wrist or elbow is an annoyance that typically resolves with resting the affected joint. In horses, however, even minor strains in a leg can lead to a long-term struggle with tendinitis.

Dr. Allison Stewart is an equine surgeon at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, where equine patients with lameness are frequently seen.

Following on work pioneered by Dr. Roger Smith at the Royal Veterinary College in London, Dr. Stewart is researching the use of stem cells to speed the healing of tendons in lame horses. Dr. Smith treated more than 200 injured thoroughbred race horses with bone marrow-derived stem cells, resulting in a 50 percent decrease in re-injury in these horses.

Dr. Stewart is conducting a study that compares horses treated with bone marrow-derived stem cells against a control group of horses that receive other available treatments, such as shock wave therapy, ultrasound, and stem cells derived from fat.

Stem cells derived from bone marrow may be superior for several reasons. Because the patient's own bone marrow is used, there is no worry of an immune reaction. The stem cells can be grown from a bone marrow aspirate at the university's Large Animal Clinic or sent to a commercial lab.

Compared with fat-derived stem cells, bone marrow-derived stem cells are slower to grow, taking 2 to 3 weeks. However, bone marrow-derived stem cells are relatively pure population of stem cells and have been evaluated more in clinical cases for healing in equine tendon injuries. Dr. Stewart is also studying the use of stem cells derived from uninjured tendon in the horse, which some claim is significantly better than bone marrow-derived stem cells, though little research has been done to date. A commercial venture is currently seeking FDA approval to market embryonic-like stem cells.

In the end, the goal of all these treatments—shock wave therapy, ultrasound, or the various types of stem cells—is to heal tendons, ligaments and joints as much as possible while reducing the risk of re-injury. Which will be the best treatment approach depends on many factors, including the characteristic of the injury.

Dr. Stewart would like to see a multicenter clinical trial, compiling data from many cases at a variety of clinics, to definitively measure the efficacy of bone marrow-derived stem cell treatment. Meanwhile, stem cell treatment remains a viable option available at the University of Illinois and elsewhere.

For more information about stem cell treatment for lameness in horses, consult your local equine veterinarian.