Researchers Develop Artificial Equine Skin

Researchers Develop Artificial Equine Skin

This artificial skin for horses could help in managing burns (such as the one seen here), wounds, and other equine ailments, researchers said.

Photo: R. Reid Hanson, DVM, Dipl. ACVS

What started as a playful gallop in the field just ended with your pasture fence in shambles and your horse with wounds all over his body. As you await the veterinarian's arrival, you think of how convenient it would be to grow him some new skin to replace the patches he just lost.

Good news. Now you can.

Yes, that science fiction concept is actually becoming a reality in the equine world. While tissue-engineered skin already exists for humans, dogs, and even mice, it’s not as easy to grow skin in a laboratory that’s customized to the equine patient. The basic building block cells of horse skin, the equine primary keratinocytes, just don’t seem to last very long in a laboratory culture. But recently, a group of Spanish researchers have discovered an effective “recipe” for a culture that works for these keratinocytes. And so, tissue-engineered equine skin has now been born.

“We are very excited because our study describes, for the first time, the development of an equine artificial skin,” said Anna Puigdemont, PhD, of the Department of Pharmacology, Therapeutics, and Toxicology at the University of Barcelona. “This model has been used in humans mainly for treating burned patients, but it has also shown very useful results in other clinical situations. Therefore, despite it being a new strategy for tissue regeneration, its safety and usefulness seem guaranteed.”

In their study, Puigdemont and colleagues took skin biopsies from euthanized horses, removed the fat and blood vessels, and digested them in a special laboratory medium based on collagenase (enzymes that break peptide bonds in collagen, the main component of connective tissue like that found in skin). Through careful management and regular changing of the culture medium at precise intervals, they were able to “grow” biological skin in their laboratories within 14 days.

Skin at that stage could be used for wound healing or laboratory testing in equine skin research, Puigdemont said. However, her team opted to verify the newly developed skin's composition by examining it microscopically. They found that the tissue-engineered skin was compatible with the original skin, said Puigdemont. It had the two main layers of natural skin—an epidermis and a correctly structured dermis—which resembled natural skin structure.

One drawback, Puigdemont said, is that the equine tissue-engineered skin (like all tissue-engineered skin) has no blood vessels and no hair follicles. So while it works well to close up wounds, it’s essentially bald scar tissue. Still, Puigdemont said it’s an excellent alternative to synthetic skin or transplanting skin from other parts of the horse’s body, which can be challenging, she added.

“We don’t have any photos of the healing process in horses yet, but in dogs, the lesion area decreases significantly after the skin application, and the scar is not an important issue,” Puigdemont said.

The team is currently offering equine tissue engineering to veterinarians needing replacement skin for their patients, she said.

The study, "Development and characterization of an equine skin-equivalent model," was published in Veterinary Dermatology

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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