New ways to treat lameness

Inspired by an experience from his previous career in show jumping, Dr. Jan Spaas has developed an innovative method for the treatment of lameness in horses. As the founder of Global Stem cell Technology NV (GST), he has worked together with Boehringer Ingelheim to develop and launch the medication Arti-Cell® Forte. This is the first-ever registered stem cell-based veterinary medicine for animal health.

Jan Spaas, a passionate horse rider and former show jumper, grew up in a family where horses have always been of major importance. “My father was a professional horse breeder, keeping an eye on the health of horses was an essential part of his work. I learned from him that the health of a horse comes first, and relaxation and recovery were as important as training. However, I noticed that there were always some horses rehabilitating from joint or tendon injuries,” explains Jan. “I simply could not believe there was no possibility of treating recurring lameness which he saw in some of his horses.” Following his ongoing experience with his horses suffering from lameness and not being able to do anything, he ended his career as a show jumper – in order to become a veterinarian. The subject of his doctoral thesis: the development of biological treatment methods for lameness in horses.

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Not only equine athletes but nearly every horse suffers from lameness at some point in its life. The causes vary widely – but in 60 percent of cases, the lameness is associated with osteoarthritis (joint inflammation and changes that result in a degradation of cartilage). This leads to pain and swelling, and the affected horse can no longer perform. “When I was competing and even when I became a veterinarian, there were very few options for treating osteoarthritis in horses. So, I decided to look for a regenerative medicine to treat recurrent lameness that would improve the health and quality of life of horses,” says Spaas. “Most therapeutic approaches addressed only the symptoms, not the cause. Recurring flare-ups were inevitable.”

Most therapeutic approaches addressed only the symptoms, not the cause. Recurring flare-ups were inevitable.

Dr. Jan Spaas

The Belgian veterinarian wanted to find a way for animals affected by lameness to feel better, to improve recovery over the long term, and to return the horses to their previous level of performance wherever possible. He wanted to tackle the evil of osteoarthritis at the source. In his doctoral thesis, he sought to cultivate new cartilage tissue from the stem cells of healthy horses in test tubes with this goal in mind. “The most important finding was that stem cells are able to influence the production of cartilage tissue when programmed accordingly, and can thus aid in the regeneration of damaged cartilage.”

He founded a company, GST, in order to develop his innovative therapeutic approach into a marketable medication that not only addresses the causes of lameness, but also does so without chemical additives. The principle behind the therapy is that afflicted horses are injected with blood stem cells from donor animals. These stem cells are “programmed” in the lab to send out specific signals that cause cartilage tissue to generate “matrix proteins”. “This allows the cartilage to regenerate and become more robust,” explains Spaas.

Arti-Cell® Forte was specifically designed for horses to provide a convenient and long-term solution for recurrent lameness.

GST has tested the new stem cell therapy on horses from various equestrian disciplines through extensive experimentation. The majority of animals responded to the therapy. “Even in acute cases, swelling and lameness subside within two weeks after starting the treatment,” says Spaas. He and his team invest a significant amount of time in finding suitable stem cell donors. “At present, we use stem cells from four healthy donor horses. We carried out extensive examinations on roughly 40 horses in order to find them.” The effort paid off, because the therapeutic approach is highly efficient.

GST has cooperated with Boehringer Ingelheim since 2018, and the innovative stem cell therapy for horses entered the market under the name Arti-Cell® Forte in April 2019. “For us, Boehringer Ingelheim is the perfect partner for establishing Arti-Cell® Forte internationally,” says the founder. “We share the goal of researching therapies to treat conditions that still lack satisfactory options for treatment.”