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Horses could hold key to treating injury-related arthritis

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Researchers at Colorado State University are making headway in identifying how osteoarthritis progresses in horses, and their findings could one day also help people who develop the degenerative disease after injuring a knee, elbow, or shoulder.

Lynn Pezzanite, doctor of veterinary medicine and assistant professor at Colorado State University, said the disease affects nearly eight in ten horses over age 15.

“It’s the most common disorder affecting joints in horses, as well as in people, and one of the most common disorders that we treat overall in horses. It’s one of the most common reasons horses present to a veterinarian,” she said.

Pezzanite and her team hope to find markers of how osteoarthritis develops in horses by studying individual immune cells in joint fluid. Those markers may provide insights into how veterinarians can use gene therapies or other treatments at specific stages to slow the disease’s progression.

Typically, people and animals only show signs of osteoarthritis at advanced stages when they experience joint pain. Pezzanite believes information in immune cells might expose the disease much earlier, even before evidence appears on X-rays.

“Our goal with this work is to look at those very early stages in horses that have post-traumatic arthritis so that we can determine that tipping point of when we should be intervening or not. And hopefully, this will inform treatment in humans as well,” she continued.

Pezzanite said people could benefit from this research if the immune markers can be translated across species. Physicians would have better information about when to intervene before full-blown osteoarthritis develops.

“If you’re playing soccer and twist your knee, tear your ACL, we would potentially be able to take a sample of that joint fluid and know whether you’re going to develop arthritis or not,” she explained. “Which would allow us to be more aggressive in treatment of that joint.”