NORTH MYMMS (Reuters) - Professor Roger Smith examines a small vial of straw-colored liquid containing millions of stem cells before filling his syringe.
His “patient” — a nine-year-old thoroughbred bay gelding — stands above him, sedated but still conscious, while Smith guides the needle into a damaged tendon on its foreleg.
An ultrasound monitor tracks the stem cells bubbling through the tissue and in a few minutes it is all over. The leg is bandaged and the horse led back to stables.
Stem cell therapy may be controversial in human medicine but in the world of horse racing it is becoming the odds-on favorite for tackling tendon damage, which accounts for one in three racecourse injuries.
Soon the same technology could be applied to humans.
Smith, who is professor of equine orthopedics at the Royal Veterinary College north of London, believes there is every chance his pioneering technique to get horses back on form will work in human athletes too.
“Horses are a really good model of human tendencies,” he said.
VetCell BioScience Ltd, a spin-off from the college that Smith helped set up, is already working with the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in London on protocols for human clinical trials, which could start by the end of the year.
The initial aim will be to treat rotator cuff shoulder injuries, frequently sustained by baseball pitchers and other athletes involved in throwing sports. Treating damage to the Achilles tendon is another possibility.
The move by privately owned VetCell — which plans to change its name to MedCell and raise some 10 million pounds ($20 million) to help fund its jump to human healthcare — reflects growing interest worldwide in the orthopaedic use of stem cells.
No products are yet on the market but some U.S. biotech companies are already conducting clinical studies and the field is being monitored closely by established industry leaders like Smith & Nephew Plc.
In contrast to the controversial field of embryonic stem cell research, which involves the destruction of days-old embryos, the focus in the orthopaedic area is on adult mesenchymal stem cells that are found in bone marrow.
These immature versions of normal cells can morph into different forms of tissue, such as bone, cartilage and tendon.
In the case of horses, Smith has developed a technique to extract stem cells from the animal’s own sternum and then purify and multiply them in a laboratory.
After two or three weeks they are injected back into the horse’s tendon, where they regenerate new tissue that fills up ruptures caused by excessive exercise.
Unlike conventional treatments, which have in the past included techniques such as pressing a hot iron onto the horse’s leg in a process called “firing”, the use of stem cells does not result in scarring, which means treated tendons remain elastic.
“The goal of what we’re doing is to allow tissue regeneration rather than repair through the formation of scar tissue,” VetCell Chief Operating Officer David Mountford said.
So far, more than 500 horses have been treated by VetCell and clinical follow-up suggests the technique doubles the chance of an injured horse returning to full performance.
Each procedure costs the owner an average of 1,600 to 1,700 pounds but is potentially a good investment if it gets a valuable animal back on the racetrack.
Owners and trainers are reluctant to advertise the injury records of their horses but Mountford said 10 horses in Britain’s Cheltenham Festival last month and one runner in the Grand National had undergone the treatment.
A similar system that extracts stem cells from fat rather than bone marrow has been developed by California’s Vet-Stem Inc. and has also shown good results.
Racehorse owners, of course, are used to a gamble and have been happy to take a punt on a technology that promises to fix animals worth thousands, if not millions, of dollars. VetCell has already treated horses throughout Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, Japan, South Africa and Australia.
It remains to be seen how quickly human athletes rush to test the same stem cell regeneration system.