Stem cell treatment for horses to be trialled on humans

A horse in motion Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Horses are a natural disease model for human tendon injuries

"No-one has ever put a stem cell into a human Achilles tendon before in the UK," says Andy Goldberg, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital.

But all of that is about to change.

Dr Goldberg is leading the first trial of a new treatment which has been working wonders in racehorses - and could produce the same results in humans.

The stem cell treatment for what's known as "tendinopathy" in racehorses has been so successful that one horse to receive the treatment, Dream Alliance, went on to win the 2009 Welsh Grand National.

The technique also saw the re-injury rate of the treated horses fall by 50%.

In humans, the condition is called Achilles tendinopathy and causes severe pain in the heel. About 85,000 people are affected by the problem in the UK each year.

At present there are limited options for treating the condition apart from surgery, but stem cells offer a different solution because of their ability to regenerate.

Exploring the use of stem cell treatments in racehorses provided the perfect test-bed for humans because, Dr Goldberg says, "horses have similar problems to tendon problems found in humans".

"Their injuries are akin to human injuries. We've been able to solve the problem in horses so the next step is to translate it into humans," he says.

Image caption Physiotherapy is often used to treat Achilles tendon injuries, and stem cells could provide new hope

Horses are a good animal model for this condition because it occurs as naturally in racehorses as it does in male and female athletes.

That is why Dr Goldberg has been working closely with the Royal Veterinary College, which pioneered the stem cell treatment in horses.

Dr Jaysh Dudhia, senior lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College, says horses will inevitably play a big role in the future as natural disease models, but they are not the only animals that could help increase understanding of human conditions.

Dogs suffer from similar hip problems and other large dogs develop similar cardiac problems to humans.

Cats appear to suffer from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle, which is also seen in humans.

Ageing dogs also display signs of cognitive decline, which mirrors Alzheimer's disease in humans.

"At the small-animal hospital, we are working hard to investigate these connections," Dr Dudhia says.

What are stem cells?

A stem cell is a cell capable of becoming another cell type in the body, such as a skin cell, a muscle cell or a nerve cell

Because of their ability to become different types of cells they offer the potential to treat degenerative conditions and illnesses

Stem cells could be used to treat spinal cord damage, sports injuries, bone, cartilage and tendon damage, blood cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart disease

Source: UK Stem Cell Foundation

Only 10 patients are involved in the first study of the stem cell treatment that proved so successful for horses.

It will take place at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital and University College London.

The patients will each have stem cells taken from their pelvis, which will then be left to grow in the lab for four to five weeks, before being implanted directly into their damaged Achilles tendon.

Over the next six months, the tendons will be measured using a special 3D colour scan, to see if the treatment has been successful in regenerating the tendon.

"Before we relied on the body repairing it," says Dr Goldberg. "But a degenerative problem need stem cells."

The process of repair could work in two ways, he says.

Either the stem cells will turn into new tendon cells, or the stem cells will encourage other cells around them to form new healthy cells.

The UK Stem Cell Foundation is funding the study and hopes this could lead to new treatments within the next three to five years.

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