Veterinary Medicine

Horses and humans: both suffer from arthritis

Orthopedists are in a quandary when a patient complains about pain in the knees but the X-rays don't reveal any anomalies. Should they operate? “Imagine when a horse presents the same symptoms,” says Sheila Laverty, professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Université de Montréal. “Arthritis is a very common affliction in horses, but veterinarians can neither prevent it nor even arrive at an early diagnosis.”

Things could change soon thanks to this researcher’s work. She studies biomarkers of cartilaginous metabolism present in the blood. “When the articular cartilage covering the bones begins to disintegrate, tiny quantities of biomarkers are found in the synovial liquid, the natural lubricant that allows the ends of the bones to pivot on one another without seizing up. We attempt to find traces of this progressive degradation before the first radiographic signs appear. Ideally, a simple test of the blood or synovial liquid would be sufficient.” For a number of years, Dr Laverty has been working with Dr Robin Poole, of the articular disease laboratory at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Montréal, who is internationally renowned for his research on articular cartilage in humans and, in particular, the study of biomarkers. Dr Laverty’s work is very promising for the human species, which faces increasingly severe joint problems as the population ages. The author of three articles that have appeared since 2000 in the Journal of Orthopedic Research, Dr Laverty is a member of the Canadian Arthritis Network, a center of excellence that brings together 127 engineers, rheumatologists, orthopaedic surgeons, radiologists, etc. “Horses and humans have a lot of points in common in our field,” she says. “We are taking on two challenges simultaneously: early diagnosis of anomalies and medication.”

The researcher does work in vivo and in vitro. For example, she collects samples of cartilage from dead animals in order grow them in the laboratory (the cells are able to grow for a few hours after death). These tissues are vital for testing new molecules. In Québec, a large number of racehorses suffer from osteoarthrosis in varying degrees. In most cases the symptoms can be effectively treated by intra-articular treatments or arthroscopic surgery, but the pain forces veterinarians to resort to euthanasia in some cases that are too advanced. While the symptoms can be treated, we have no drugs that are capable of preventing or stopping the process of cartilage degeneration. Currently, the physiopathology of osteoarthrosis is not widely studied in veterinary medicine, so the Saint-Hyacinthe researcher is something of a pioneer. But Sheila Laverty is also a surgeon and instructor. “It is important to be active in basic research, but I also like to have a clinical activity. And it all helps improve my teaching.”

Researcher: Sheila Laverty
Telephone: (514) 343-6111, poste 8267
Funding: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Aventis


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