From surgery to injections, thanks to racehorses
Race horse medicine affects people, changing an invasive surgery to a simple injection.

In a very unusual breakthrough, a stem cell treatment for racehorses is ready to be tried… on you. British scientists pioneered a technique in horses where an individuals’ own stem cells are grown outside the body, then injected into the damaged tendon.  There will be a clinical trial in the UK in which 24 human patients will undergo this radical new stem cell treatment for similar tendon injuries. We’ll tell you about the proven benefits in racehorses so you’ll understand the possible benefits in people. The test subjects who join the clinical trial will be in the unique position of enjoying a medical procedure that is years behind the veterinary equivalent.  If human beings have the same barely believable 80% recovery rate, this will be a leap forward for sports medicine.The transition from ponies to people began  in 2005.  After successful early treatments on horses, veterinarian Roger Smith published “Harnessing the stem cell for the treatment of tendon injuries: heralding a new dawn?” in the Journal of British Sports Medicine, which is a human medical journal.  Roger Smith, a professor at the British Royal Veterinary College, works with VetCell Bioscience Ltd., a British company that specializes in equine tendon injuries.  Smith explained in his paper, “it is hoped that our experience with horses will pave the way for this technology to be used successfully in human tendon and ligament injuries.” After years of extensive tests (on horses) they’re ready to move their treatment on people.  You can visit the VetCell website and sign up to be one of the 24 patients in the clinical trial that’s happening this year through their sister company, MedCell.

The clinical trial will treat achilles tendinitis (they’re British, they spell it with an “i”) without surgery. For treatment, bone marrow stem cells are collected from the horse, er, person, then coaxed into becoming tendon cells.  The lab grown tendon cells are injected into the site of injury.  Injecting a cure without major surgery is a big freakin’ deal because, in humans, surgery produces “Moderate to severe pain … in 20% to 30% of patients … In addition, a wound infection can occur and the infection is very difficult to treat in this location,” according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.  (You can also see the above surgery image in full gore mode.) VetCell states that in the “athletic horse” tendon stem cell therapy leads to about 80% recover rates, compared to about 40% using conventional surgery, as well as having very low re-injury rates after treatment.

Stem cell treatment for horse tendons
The process of tendon repair in the horse, from VetStem's website

VetCell’s transition into human medicine shows that innovation can come from unexpected sources. “The move from clinical veterinary to human medicine is inspiring and unusual; we normally see the translation happening the other way around.” Said sports medicine professor Nicola Maffulli, of The London Independent Hospital. (His quote’s gone a bit viral, showing up in 347 websites.) In the past,  SingularityHub has published the sad fact that animals are often getting access to innovative medical treatments before humans.  Perhaps VetCell’s bold move could pave the way for other animal bio-tech treatments to smoothly transition to humans.

The reason animals can get commercial drugs and treatments faster than people in the US and other Western countries is simple: there is enormous oversight in human medical research.  Veterinary research is comparably simple. According to the FDA, bringing a new drug to market for humans requires pre-clinical laboratory tests, animal tests, and human clinical trials.  Each one of those steps costs money, lots and lots of it. Approval for veterinary drugs is simpler, requiring a single study that proves the drug is safe and effective. Because of regulatory difference, progress on animal medical research can move very quickly compared to human research.

A gap between availability of human and animal bio-tech isn’t necessarily bad.  A growing company can find important revenue through veterinary products while developing human medicine. The Intralytix company in Maryland, USA, has two animal products that are already completed and licensed out and three human products are still under development.  Intralytix is researching phage therapy, which delivers bacteria-slaughtering viruses to infections.  While they work on human medicine, they’re making food and food animals safer for humans.

The most interesting aspect of this stem cell treatment is that it has been thoroughly investigated on animals that live as practicing athletes, putting incredible strain on their bodies.  This is probably an improvement on lab animal only testing.  In the meantime, if you’ve got a banged up achilles tendon, you can go sign up for VetCell’s clinical trial.  When you go in for your injection, be comforted knowing the treatment was developed for horses worth more than your house.

[Image credit: Ruptured tendon surgery; race horse, Jeff Kubina on Flickr; hypodermic needle, Armin Kübelbeck, wikimedia commons.  Info graphic from]
[sources: Smith and Webbon B.J.Sports Medicine, 2005, VetCell, MedCell]