Ravel, a horse competing at the 2012 London Olympics, underwent stem cell therapy treatment that helped heal a possibly career-ending injury to one of his legs, according to the Helen Woodward Animal Center in California.
Ravel, a regular client of Rodrigo Vazquez of Equine Surgical Services at the center, is believed to be the first Olympian to benefit from a stem cell-based treatment. Ravel is now the highest scoring horse on Team USA at the Olympics.
"Ravel is a high-impact athlete," Vazquez said. "He runs the same risks as any other athlete in a high performance sport and he gets hurt like any other athlete too. But he is something special. He works hard and he's focused and he thrives in his sport. He just didn't want to quit."
The 15-year-old equine athlete, owned by Akiko Yamazaki, was united with his rider Steffen Peters in late 2006. Since then, the team has made history, with Ravel excelling in dressage, which is one of three Olympic equestrian disciplines. It involves riding and training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility and balance.
Ravel and Peters were the highest placing American pair at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and have won numerous competitions over the years, including the prestigious Rolex/FEI World Cup in dressage.
Before these victories, Ravel sustained the leg injury. Jessica Gercke, a spokesperson for the Helen Woodward Animal Center, told Discovery News that staff working with competitive horses like Ravel do not wish to reveal detailed information about medical conditions and treatments, since that might affect the perceptions of judges or others.
Vazquez, however, did share that regular check-ups, vaccinations, dentistry and the "emergency treatment with a new technology based on stem cell therapy" helped to heal Ravel after an eight-month break in training.
Adult stem cells can reproduce and differentiate into different types of cells. They continue to be a focus of study for scientists hoping to treat a number of diseases in humans and non-human animals. In horses, to repair cartilage and tendon tissues, scientists have been looking into stem cells derived from bone.
"Bone derived cells in horses are most often obtained from an aspirate (material drawn by suction) of either the hip or sternum with apparent minimal discomfort" to the horse, according to David Frisbie, an associate professor at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "The procedure typically takes less than 15 minutes and can be done standing under light sedation."
Results of clinical studies on horses suggest that stem cell treatment can improve healing rates, overall outcomes, and decrease re-injury rates almost by half. Further studies are needed, however, to better determine dosage and timing specifics.
In the meantime, Ravel, Peters and Vazquez are all now in London. The horse's performances so far this week are "textbook Ravel," according to a report issued by the United States Equestrian Team Foundation. "The veteran went to work and moved through the test with ease."
As of this writing, there is still hope that Ravel might win an Individual medal at the games.
Fifteen is a senior age for equine competitors at the Olympic level, so it is widely speculated that Ravel is close to the end of his competing career. No official announcement of his retirement has been made so far.
For now, Vazquez is hoping to watch Ravel bring home the gold.
© 2012 Discovery Channel