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Could horses with tendon injuries be given a greater chance of making a successful recovery?

Research recently undertaken by scientists at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) has found that the use of embryonic stem cells may give horses with tendon injuries a greater chance of a successful return to active work.

Tendon injuries are a common problem in horses and instead of regenerating healthy tendon tissue, they repair by forming scar tissue which pre-disposes the horse to a high risk of re-injury. Tendon injuries are therefore a leading cause of retirement in horses taking part in a wide range of disciplines. In the early stages following a tendon injury there is a significant increase in inflammation and this is likely to contribute to the poor tissue regeneration.

In recent work, funded by the Horserace Betting Levy Board, Racing Foundation, Alice Noakes Memorial Charitable Trust and Beryl Evetts and Robert Luff Animal Welfare Trust, our stem cell researchers have demonstrated that the inflammation produced following an injury has very negative consequences for adult tendon cells. Using a laboratory model they found that adult tendon cells cannot produce ‘artificial’ tendons efficiently when exposed to inflammation.

In contrast, they found that embryonic stem cells (ESCs) that were directed to turn into tendon cells behaved as normal when exposed to inflammation.

We were able to demonstrate that these tendon cells express different levels of receptors for inflammatory proteins on their surface. This means that these stem cells may provide a useful source of cells for clinical transplantation into the injured tendon as they are unlikely to suffer any negative effects from being placed into an inflamed environment

Dr Debbie Guest
Dr Debbie Guest, Head of Stem Cell Research

Furthermore the team at the AHT believes this now opens up the possibility of further studies to understand more about how ESC-derived tendon cells protect themselves from inflammation to develop new drug treatments that could be used to protect adult tendon cells following an injury. Protecting tendon cells from inflammation could help to improve the regeneration of healthy tendon tissue to reduce the risk of re-injury and allow more horses to remain in active work.

Funding for a follow up study by the Animal Health Trust, in collaboration with the Royal Veterinary College, has been secured from the Horserace Betting Levy Board and the team are hopeful that new treatment options for this old problem may soon be developed.


Read the full study

You can read a copy of the study “A novel mechanism for the protection of embryonic stem cell derived tenocytes from inflammatory cytokine interleukin 1 beta”, published in Nature, here