New stem cell research may help repair cartilage in horses

Using a process called cryopreservation, researchers are working on a new stem cell treatment for localized cartilage defects in horses.

Cartilage defects are a common issue in horses, especially those who perform at the competitive level. New stem cell research has the potential to lengthen many horses’ careers, and may even help treat similar issues in human patients.

The ground-breaking research involves cryopreservation (or vitrification), the process of cooling and storing cells, tissues, or organs at very low temperatures to maintain their viability. Dr. Thomas Koch, a researcher at Ontario Veterinary College, is using cryopreservation to preserve cartilage chips for long-term storage. The chips are created by using blood from the equine umbilical cord, and are then cryopreserved and stored for use at a later date. The goal is to reduce the need for harvesting stem cells for cartilage repair from equine patients at the time they cells are needed, which would mean much faster treatment and – ideally – better outcomes.

Funding from Ontario Equestrian has allowed Dr. Koch and his team to complete the first step of this ongoing research project, which involved testing whether or not equine cartilage stem cells from cadavers could be vitrified. “We are very excited to have received this support,” says Dr. Koch. “The preliminary study will allow for future funding sources from both equine specific and human medicine.”

The Ontario Veterinary College is also working with a world-renowed cartilage vitrification specialist, Dr. Jomha Nadr, and his team at the University of Alberta in Edmonton to establish a new vitrification protocol. The next step is to clinically evaluate whether cryopreserved cartilage chips can effectively repair focal cartilage defects in research horses. Once fully implemented, this therapy would provide a safe and fairly simple treatment for horses, as well as an opportunity for a Canadian biotechnology business to bank and globally distribute vitrified cartilage tissue.

The future of regenerative therapies offers numerous potential applications, from delaying the onset of joint diseases such as osteoarthritis to treating bacterial infections. According to Dr. Koch, this specific research project has a great deal of long-term potential, and may help both horses and humans through the development of novel off-the-shelf cell-based therapies for damaged joint cartilage.

Visit to learn more about this research project.