Progress in Predicting Joint Problems

Someday veterinarians might be able to take a horse's blood sample, analyze its makeup to predict his future bone and joint health, and simply prevent the problems that are likely to arise. In late 2005, 20 leading joint researchers that are pursuing this goal convened for a first-of-a-kind Dorothy Russell Havemeyer Foundation workshop on this topic--equine joint biomarkers.

Scientists covered some of the latest findings on potential new biomarkers to monitor the health of joint tissues, particularly cartilage, tendon, and bone. According to workshop organizer Wayne McIlwraith, BVSc, PhD, DSc, FRCVS, Dipl. ACVS, director of orthopaedic research at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, biomarkers are "indicators of abnormal skeletal tissue turnover, and often consist of molecules that are the normal products and byproducts of the metabolic processes occurring within skeletal tissues.

"One of the more recent works (in orthopedic research) is to develop a number of biomarkers to predict changes in bone," McIlwraith said. "That would allow a veterinarian to take a blood sample and predict chronic bone disease." In addition to developing better cartilage repair techniques, he and other researchers would like to prevent joint damage altogether by using gene therapy. This would involve inserting specific gene segments into a horse to correct genes that were programmed for damage.

Havemeyer workshops are designed to encourage frank and open discussion between scientists, and the workshops usually include comparative studies with other species, in this case humans. Chris Little, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, is associate professor and director of the Raymond Purves Bone and Joint Research Laboratories at the University of Sydney in Australia. Initially he practiced veterinary medicine, but he now runs a lab at a human hospital (The Royal North Shore Hospital). Little said, "While the (Havemeyer) conference was focused on biomarkers of musculoskeletal diseases in the horse, the principles are the same for all species, including humans. I am a believer that we can learn a great deal from the similarities and differences in disease mechanisms between species."

Currently there are few non-invasive ways to diagnose or monitor many common musculoskeletal diseases or injuries such as arthritis, fractures, or tendon ruptures before they are advanced enough to show clinical signs. "Unfortunately this means that in many cases, the disease is too advanced and either a catastrophic fracture/tendon tear has already occurred, or in the case of arthritis, the pathology is too severe for successful therapy," Little said.

"If we could discover markers that were easily monitored over time that were useful in early, 'pre-clinical' diagnosis of impending injuries, this would enable early treatment and prevention of long-term disability, particularly in the horse," Little added.

Researchers are investigating proteins and their breakdown products (collectively, "biomarkers") that are released from tissues, or genes that are turned on or off in the early stages of disease and can be measured in the blood.

Scientists are examining several prospective biomarkers that Little said might prove very useful in equine joint disease.
"However, these need further evaluation and validation, and one of the very positive things to come out of the meeting was the collaboration that has been set up between different groups from around the world to enable this to happen as quickly and accurately as possible.

"I still think we are a few years away from having specific and sensitive biomarkers for musculoskeletal diseases, but only through meetings such as the Havemeyer conference will this happen," Little said.

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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