In horses, this treatment has been extensively studied and found to restore function to the Achilles tendon and reduce re-injury rates by 50 percent. This will be tested in humans for the first time, in a procedure involving stem cells being taken from the pelvis, grown outside of the body and then implanted into the injured Achilles tendon.
Mr Andy Goldberg, consultant orthopaedic surgeon and lead researcher, based at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital and University College London, told the BBC: 'Horses have similar problems to tendon problems found in humans. Their injuries are akin to human injuries. We've been able to solve the problem in horses so the next step is to translate it into humans'.
Achilles tendinopathy is a condition which causes severe pain in the heel and affects 85,000 people in the UK each year. The pain associated with the condition can progress to become chronic, limiting mobility and having a negative impact on quality of life. In the worst-case scenario, the weakened tendon can rupture, requiring surgical intervention and a lengthy recovery.
With the help of this stem cell therapy, Dream Alliance, a race horse who tore a tendon, went on to win the Welsh National. If the technique translates successfully to humans, Mr Goldberg is hoping for comparable results in his patients. Speaking to the Telegraph, he said: 'If things go well, we are hopeful this treatment could have a life changing impact on patients'.
Mr Goldberg's optimism may be justified, because similar stem cell therapy techniques have been used to treat other musculoskeletal conditions such as osteonecrosis (see BioNews 659) and non-union fractures (see (BioNews 578), with tissue being successfully regenerated. However, the number of people involved in these studies is small. The researchers hope that this project will help to evaluate the use of stem cell therapies in musculoskeletal conditions.
Sir Richard Knight, chairman of the UK Stem Cell Foundation who is funding the research, told the Telegraph: '[This study] is an exciting example of taking preclinical work in a natural animal disease model and translating it for human benefit'.