Research using stem cells to treat damaged cartilage in horses could have human applications in the treatment of osteoarthritis.

With their ability to morph into almost any type of cell in the body, stem cells have the potential to improve quality of life for people with various types of injuries and diseases. Researchers in the University of Guelph’s Department of Biomedical Sciences are studying the use of stem cells to treat damaged cartilage in horses. The treatment could one day be used to help people with joint problems.

“The hope and the promise of regenerative medicine is to try and repair the tissue back to a normal functional state,” says biomedical sciences professor Thomas Koch.

Inspired by studies on canine stem cells at the Ontario Veterinary College, he turned the focus of his PhD studies on horses. “Within the first year we found stem cells within the umbilical cord blood of newborn foals that could be coaxed into becoming the cells of cartilage.”

As a faculty member, Koch has continued his work on equine stem cells for cartilage repair in a number of areas, including finding better ways to treat horses, using the horse as a model for testing new therapies for humans, and enhancing our knowledge of normal cartilage biology.

Horses suffer from the same types of cartilage injuries as humans, making them one of the best research subjects to study cartilage for comparison to human cartilage, he says. In addition, both horses and humans have thick cartilage and large joints, which allow for the use of similar types of instruments to perform surgical procedures.

Koch says cartilage injury is the leading cause of lameness in horses. He is currently chemically manipulating stem cells in the lab to become cartilage cells prior to using the cells in cartilage repair treatments. Previous attempts to inject undifferentiated stem cells directly into damaged cartilage in the hope that they would turn into cartilage cells were unsuccessful, he says.

Cartilage tissue is unique because it doesn’t contain blood vessels or nerves. That makes cartilage engineering somewhat easier than other types of tissues because blood vessels and nerves don’t need to be incorporated into the tissue.

“When cartilage gets damaged, it often goes undetected until it’s quite severe and nerve fibres in the underlying bone are starting to get exposed,” says Koch. Early detection is important but difficult to achieve until surrounding tissues are affected and cause pain. The low metabolism of cartilage makes it slow to respond to treatment.

Koch is optimistic that his research will have human applications in the future.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting more than three million Canadians, according to the Arthritis Society. Treatment typically includes medication and surgery, but the end result is often joint replacement. Surgery is costly and wait times can take months.

“Osteoarthritis is often preceded by small lesions within the cartilage, so if we are able to detect those smaller lesions early and treat them, we may be able to either prevent the development of osteoarthritis or at least delay it,” says Koch.

Joint replacements are being performed in younger patients due to lifestyle factors, he adds, which raises the risk of complications when the artificial joint needs to be replaced in the future. Therapies that delay a patient’s first joint replacement by a decade could save health care costs and result in better patient outcomes.

Koch recently received an Early Researcher Award worth $140,000 from the provincial government to better understand cartilage biology and develop new treatments for joint diseases and injuries.