Nostrils flaring, ears pricked, Solid Gold shifted nervously as the vet stroked his injured foreleg.
The three-year-old racehorse had no way of knowing this injection would save his career, not end it.
While debate rages over the ethics of stem cell research for humans, a Singapore-based firm has given Asian racehorse owners a new weapon in the battle against career-threatening tendon and ligament injuries.
After harvesting bone marrow from the horse’s sternum, EZ Stemcell separates multi-potential stem cells, which are then injected directly into the injured tendon.
This cutting-edge technology will not only revolutionise the way injured horses are treated, says Dr Omie Rangabashyam, but two-legged patients could one day be treated in a similar way.
“By injecting the stem cells directly into the core lesion, the tendon will regain its integrity, will regain its strength, without the fibrous scar tissue that forms with conventional treatment,” Rangabashyam, a director of EZ Stemcell, told Reuters as he tried to calm the horse.
“Without stem cell therapy, Solid Gold would have been rested for a year, raced again and the tendon would probably tear again.
“That would be the end of him.”
Following a few days’ box rest, Solid Gold will undergo a programme of gentle walks and exercise to get the tendon working as normal. He should be doing solid work on the track in about seven months, said Rangabashyam.
The hurdler returned to competitive racing a year later and went on to win on its second outing after the procedure.
EZ Stemcell had already been approached by owners throughout Asia and Australia and the firm was looking into the possibility of expanding into the lucrative Dubai racing scene.
For owners and trainers in Singapore, where the racing calendar peaks with the $3 million Singapore Airlines International Cup, counting the cost of injuries runs into millions of dollars.
Rangabashyam, who owns more than 30 horses stabled at the Singapore Turf Club, paid 500,000 Singapore dollars ($308,600) for a German horse that has since run just twice in 2 ¸ years because of a succession of injuries.
A stem cell shot costs 2,888 Singapore dollars.
Mark Clements was the first trainer in Singapore to have a horse treated with stem cells.
“The traditional way to treat a horse with a tendon problem was rest — throw it in the stable and forget about it for a year,” the Zimbabwe native told Reuters at the Turf Club.
“They were also injecting various drugs into the injury, which never really worked.
“They had limited success with injecting raw bone marrow but the results with stem cells are on a different level.
“No scar tissue means the tendon gets its elasticity back, which means the horse’s movement, and ultimately its speed, is virtually unaffected.”
The benefits of stem cell therapy may one day reach far beyond racing circles.
Doctors in Thailand have been using an experimental procedure to treat heart patients with adult stem cells harvested from their own blood, bypassing both the risk of rejection and the controversial subject of embryonic stem cell use.
Some people oppose the use of embryonic stem cells, saying a human life must be destroyed to grow the cells.
Companies in the United States are also exploring the commercial potential for stem cells as treatment for diseases such as diabetes.
Rangabashyam, a liver specialist at Singapore’s Gleneagles hospital, says the green light for using stem cells in the treatment of liver disease is not far off.
“Soon we’ll have it for acute liver disease, for acute renal disease. There’s trials going on in the U.S. for the treatment of neurological disease,” he added.
Another Singapore firm was storing umbilical cords of newborns so that they could perhaps one day be used to cure them of disease or injury.
“The physiology of all living things is the same. With stem cells, anything is possible.”