Gene Therapy for Equine Joints May Help Humans

Research in gene therapy to help heal joint injuries in horses may provide breakthroughs that can be applied to humans. According to Dr. Laurie Goodrich, a veterinarian that specializes in equine lameness and surgery at Colorado State University, horses have a very similar joint anatomy, biochemical and molecular makeup as humans, and joint injuries in horses often respond very similarly as humans to treatments. The Federal Drug Administration has recently recognized that the horse is an excellent representative study model for cartilage injury and osteoarthritis in people.

Goodrich and her team of researchers have received a $678,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to investigate the success of treating joint injuries with a protein injected into injured joints within a virus-like agent called a viral vector. The hope is that gene therapy will help heal cartilage and will also prevent the development of osteoarthritis in horses.

Cartilage heals only on a limited basis there is just not as much growth factor ( a specific type of protein) available in the joints and cartilage as in other parts of the body. Growth factors signal the body to heal because they are responsible for a number of cellular functions, such as those that produce healthy tissue or matrix around the cells within cartilage to help heal injuries.

Studies show that the growth factor, called insulin-like growth factor, or IGF-I, helps cartilage develop and  promotes healing of injured cartilage. However, researchers have not been able to develop a way to maintain enough IGF-I in an injured joint to help it heal. Goodrich and her team hope that using a viral vector to deliver DNA that increases production of IGF-I, a protein, will increase healing in damaged joint tissues.The researchers will test the concept in a laboratory setting before beginning clinical trials on horses with joint injuries.

In comparison, current treatments for osteoarthritis in horses such as Adequan and Legend alleviate the symptoms but do not enable the cartilage to heal, so if this treatment is successful, it will represent a major breakthrough for horses — and maybe even their riders.

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