One of the most common causes of lameness in horses -- an injury to tendon and ligaments -- can now be treated at Virginia Tech's Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center with one of the newest treatments available, platelet rich plasma.

Platelet-rich plasma, or PRP, is derived from blood that is drawn from an equine patient and run through a centrifuge, which separates a solution’s less dense components from its heavier ones. This process distills a portion of the blood to a platelet concentration level that is five times richer than regular blood. At the same time, it helps to remove both red and white blood cells from the platelet rich part of the plasma.

“Plasma containing this concentrated level of platelets provides an abundance of growth factors, which are the proteins in the body that stimulate cells in the tendon or ligament to start the healing process,” explained Dr. Jennifer Barrett, assistant professor of surgery at the equine medical center. “When PRP is injected into damaged tendon or ligament, cells in the tissue — along with new cells circulating in the blood — are stimulated to bring new cells to the injured site,” she said. These healing cells work to increase the formation of new blood vessels and connective tissue, all of which encourages natural repair of the injury.

Because the patient’s own blood is used to make the specialized plasma, known as an autologous process, there is no risk of the treatment being rejected, as it might be if the blood had been provided by a donor. Autologous processes are used at the equine medical center for other equine therapeutic treatments, including stem cell treatments.

“Given that tendon and ligaments in horses are often subject to injury because they become worn down with use, we’re primarily utilizing PRP treatments in these areas,” Barrett said.

“Ligaments, in particular, can degenerate over time, and in some cases, the normal healing and remodeling process does not kick in to an adequate level. We use PRP to help initiate cell response, so that the normal healing process is stimulated and can proceed,” she said. “As such, a PRP treatment can be particularly helpful in cases where the healing process has stalled. This treatment helps assure that the horse’s injury is completely healed and that the risk of re-injury is lessened.”

Not only can a treatment of PRP help facilitate the healing process, in some cases it may provide an alternative to surgery. “A real advantage to the PRP treatment,” Barrett said, “is that it is less invasive than surgery. PRP is a powerful tool in our arsenal of therapies; we can use it as a stand-alone treatment or in conjunction with other services we have available at the [center], including stem cell treatments and, of course, surgery.”

Barrett cautions that a PRP treatment needs to be used with careful recuperation and rehabilitation, and that rest is still an important part of the therapy. “The patient still needs time off to rest,” Barrett said. “But PRP offers a cutting-edge therapy that helps us restore horses back to full health. And that’s always our ultimate goal.”

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