Farm Ireland

Thursday 18 January 2018

New technology provides hope for injured horses

An Irish company is pioneering treatments for cartilage and bone injuries in thoroughbred horses

Minister Damien English, Prof Fergal O'Brien, Deputy Director of AMBER and Head of the Tissue Engineering Research Group in RCSI, and Laurence Mulvany, owner of Annagh Haven
Minister Damien English, Prof Fergal O'Brien, Deputy Director of AMBER and Head of the Tissue Engineering Research Group in RCSI, and Laurence Mulvany, owner of Annagh Haven

Siobhán English

Orthopaedic injuries in horses not only have a huge economic impact on the horse industry but can also be devastating for their owners who invest so much time and energy into ensuring their horses' health and well-being.

Now new technology to repair damaged cartilage and bone in horses has been developed in Ireland. It is set to give hope to many of those owners, particularly within the lucrative racing industry, which sees dozens of horses sidelined with such injuries each year.

This breakthrough in veterinary science has been developed by Professor Fergal O'Brien, head of Bioengineering and Regenerative Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, together with experts from Trinity College Dublin, University College Cork and the AMBER Centre (Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research).

AMBER is one of the key drivers of Ireland's growing international research reputation. It is now ranked third in the world for nanoscience and sixth in the world for the quality of materials science research.

Since its launch in late 2013, researchers at AMBER have announced four world-first discoveries in the areas of materials science that have been internationally recognised.  Materials science is one of the fastest growing sectors globally, impacting electronics, medical technologies, and pharmaceuticals. Ireland exports approximately €80bn worth of these products annually.

The centre received a five-year budget in 2013 of €58m including €35m from the State and €23m from industrial partners.

During a recent industry day, Prof O'Brien outlined the successful rehabilitation of the racehorse Annagh Haven using HydroxyColl.

This product combines the two main constituents of bone tissue, namely hydroxyapatite and type I collagen, in the form of a three dimensional construct that has the intrinsic mechanical strength, architecture and biocompatibility for use as a commercial bone graft substitute, improving on currently available products.

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Bone grafts are used clinically in the treatment of many forms of bone tissue defects and actively promote healing and new bone formation.

Prof O'Brien has also outlined the successful treatment of another thoroughbred using the cartilage repair product ChondroColl. This had initially been tested on goats' knees. It is a biomimetic, bioactive layered scaffold for use in the regeneration and repair of osteochondral defects (cartilage repair), such as those that occur due to trauma or osteoarthritis. It closely matches the structure and composition of osteochondral tissue.

The four-year-old filly Annagh Haven had suffered what seemed like a career-ending cyst in her jaw. Following consultation with Prof O'Brien the cyst was removed by Dr Florent David at University College Dublin's Veterinary Hospital. The team then set about rebuilding her jaw by implanting a three-dimensional scaffold that acted like a bone graft.

ChondroColl has been used to successfully treat a racehorse with what also appeared to be a career-ending stifle problem.

"We were approached by the horse's vet to see if we could do anything so we set about treating it using this method to repair damaged cartilage. We are delighted now that the horse is making good progress," said Prof O'Brien.

Joint disease can result from acute traumatic injury or more chronic osteoarthritis. It is one of the most common causes of lameness and a primary reason why many horses' careers come to an end.

When the cartilage that normally covers the ends of adjoining bones is damaged, joint movement is restricted and frequently becomes painful.

Despite the importance of articular cartilage for normal joint function and pain-free movement, the tissue has very limited ability to repair structural damage. This is a primary reason why joint disease problems frequently progress and become more serious through life.

Racehorses, in particular, are subjected to a wide range of injuries owing to the young age at which they start their careers, and the stress and strain put on their legs.


In addition, variations in racing surfaces will also have an affect on a horse's soundness.

Prof Pieter Brama heads the veterinary surgery at UCD and is the head of Veterinary Clinical Sciences. As chief vet for Leopardstown Racecourse he has seen his fair share of injuries over the years.

"We have been working closely with Pieter and he has taken a particular interest in both products," Prof O'Brien said.

"While it is impossible to save a horse with a severely broken leg, it is hoped we can help with more minor injuries as time goes on."

While canine veterinary medicine is also set to benefit from these new technologies, regulatory approval for human use is forecast in the coming months and implantation in patients suffering from large bone defects is planned later this year.

Both HydroxyColl and ChondroColl are being marketed in Ireland by the RCSI spin out company, SurgaColl Technologies, headed up in the Rubicon Centre in the Cork Institute of Technology by Dr John Gleeson. In 2012 SurgaColl Technologies received €500,000 in AIB seed capital funding.

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