Research: University of Guelph Team Explores Equine Umbilical Stem Cell Therapy for Joint Repair

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(adapted from a story published by the University of Guelph)

Professor Dean Betts and doctoral candidate Thomas Koch, from the University of Guelph's Department of Biomedical Sciences, are hoping to use stem cells to improve cartilage healing after joint injuries. They're working with horses, where joint injuries are both common and costly, and say the research could be a model for helping human joint injuries.

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"Equine joints are similar to human joints in aspects such as joint thickness and spontaneous athletic injuries, so the research may be transferable," says Koch.

Much of the team's research focuses on perfecting the technique for isolating, expanding and differentiating adult stem cells. They're using blood from the umbilical cord of horses as a source of stem cells. Because most horses are observed when foaling, it's relatively easy to collect the cord blood at that time.

Obtaining cord blood samples is non-invasive and much easier than obtaining stem cells from an embryo. Koch says there is also evidence that stem cells from cord blood are "younger" than bone marrow stem cells, which means they're capable of more divisions, and creating more diverse tissue types. The younger stem cells may also be less prone to rejection when used to help heal cartilage in another body.

Because there are no other reports on isolating stem cells from equine cord blood, Betts and Koch are eager to gather as much information as possible. Already, they've succeeded in differentiating the cord blood stem cells into three different cell types including chondrocytes - the building blocks of cartilage.

Betts says the three-dimensional structure of cartilage and its attachment to the underlying bone is difficult to reproduce. Despite this, there have been encouraging results using osteochondral grafts - pieces of bone and cartilage grafted to the site of the injury. He hopes further research will reveal more ways to reconstruct the tissue either at the injury site, or as a graft that can be surgically implanted.

This research is supported by Equine Guelph, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and an international research grant from the Danish Research Council.