Tears in cartilage – stiff, connective tissue that acts as a cushion in joints – are common injuries among animals and humans alike, and can lead to limited mobility, pain, and eventually arthritis.
The current surgical treatment to repair such tears relieves pain for some patients, but lasts a maximum of two years, and does not work for some.
Lisa Fortier, associate professor of clinical sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine, has developed a new treatment that uses the body’s own stem cells and growth factors to help heal torn cartilage. Fortier performs the procedure in horses, but it is also available for other animals and humans. Her research is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Grayson Jockey Club Research Foundation, and the Harry M. Zweig Memorial Fund for Equine Research.
“The horse is a great model for human cartilage,” said Fortier, who has been riding horses since she was a child. “By doing these sorts of experiments, we can benefit animal and humans. The techniques we have developed are not optimal yet, but in clinical studies, they yield better results than other therapies. In the studies we’ve done, a year after the surgery, there was more high-quality repair tissue.”
The procedure involves taking a sample of the horse’s bone marrow and concentrating the stem cells from it. Those are combined with the body’s own growth factors, which are stored in platelets, and then injected into the joint using arthroscopy, a non-invasive surgery that utilizes small incisions.
The body’s natural clotting mechanisms help the injection remain in the cartilage, where it can help heal tears. “Another benefit to the surgery is that there are no major incisions, so that joint is able to heal faster and more easily,” Fortier said.
To date, she has performed the procedure approximately 50 times in horses. Her aim now is to improve the procedure so that is available to more veterinarians.
“We’re looking for ways to isolate more stem cells, and to make the process more consistent so that there’s less chance for user error,” she said. “We want veterinarians everywhere to be able to do this.”