Equine Stem Cell Research Supported by Fellowship

A University of Guelph researcher has been awarded a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship worth more than $1 million over three years to advance research on the use of stem cells to treat cartilage injuries in horses.

The fellowship will allow Thomas Koch, DVM, PhD, to continue the work he began as a graduate student in the Department of Biomedical Sciences using stem cells obtained from the umbilical cord blood of foals to repair damaged cartilage. The funds from the Danish Agency for Science, Technology, and Innovation will support a transatlantic collaboration involving University of Guelph and the largest human orthopedics laboratory in Denmark along with researchers in veterinary and human medicine in Sweden, Canada, and the United States. The fellowship was the largest awarded by the Danish funding agency in a highly competitive process.

"I'm very grateful for this support, which will allow us to carry out the first controlled studies on live animals using the protocols developed here at Guelph for obtaining stem cells from equine cord blood," said Koch. "This is also great news for U of G and the Ontario Veterinary College because it recognizes that the horse is the premier animal model for studying the potential of using stem cells to repair cartilage injuries. Equine joints are similar to human joints in some respects such as joint thickness, and horses are also prone to spontaneous athletic injuries. So there is a great deal of interest in our work from the equine industry and in human medical circles as well."

Koch and Dean Betts, BSc, MSc, PhD, were the first to establish a protocol for isolating stem cells from equine cord blood samples, a process that is non-invasive and simple compared with obtaining cells from embryos or bone marrow. They are able to differentiate the stem cells into unique cell types, including chondrocytes--the building blocks of cartilage--and hope to refine their techniques to identify the characteristics of cells that have the most therapeutic potential.

The research team will use mesenchymal stem cells--the kind that grow into connective tissue, muscle and bone--in combination with engineered grafts made of cartilage and bone-like material to treat cartilage injuries in the stifle joint, equivalent to the human knee.

"The goal is to screen these cell lines and pick the ones that are really good at creating cartilage in the lab and then test their regenerative potential in live horses at OVC and Cornell University," said Koch. "If we can make it work in horses, then there is the potential to apply the same principles to make it work in people, too."

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