Stopping racehorse fractures, before they happen

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Telemed Health
The TelemedVET team, from left: Chris Cowcher, Pete Tually and Paul O'Callaghan with nuclear scanner and a four legged patient. Image supplied.

Catastrophic fractures sustained while training and racing is one of the most pressing of the challenges facing thoroughbred racing the world over.

Across the globe, more than 1,500 horses are put down every year after a fall on the track, 120 or so occur in Australia.

Local medtech TeleMedVET is looking to solve this problem, by accurately predicting which horses are most at risk, and preventing these injuries before they happen.

The majority of these injuries are the result of overuse where the repetitive forces placed upon bone and joints during galloping lead to microdamage that accumulates over time.

Nuclear medicine practitioner and PhD researcher, Pete Tually

The Science

In normal bone, adaptation to training involves repair mechanisms that lead to the laying down of new, dense bone through the work of cells whose activity can be detected in ‘biomarker’ blood tests. However, combined with insufficient rest, the bone is unable to repair itself and becomes fatigued where ultimately, and suddenly, it fails once a tipping point has been reached. Insidious by nature, these types of fractures are elusive and difficult to detect, as many horses show no signs of discomfort prior to breakdown.

Adapting technologies used for human imaging and injury prevention, these fatigue injuries should be readily identified by advanced medical imaging such as CT, MRI and nuclear scintigraphy in horses.

The latter technique is the most sensitive to detect bone microdamage, especially when combined with the three-dimensional SPECT scan, and is able to provide surveillance of the entire skeleton in one session.

TeleMedVET is the only provider of equine 3D-SPECT which results in better image quality than two-dimensional or planar imaging. Image supplied.

Recently an equine SPECT scanner has become available in Perth. In a world-first, researchers will be using nuclear medicine and molecular scanning to compare scans of horse’s limbs with the results of blood tests and advanced analytics.

In combination with artificial intelligence the researchers hope to discover which set of biomarkers in a simple blood test could give trainers and vets an early warning sign about impending injury.

Simply put, they believe they can detect the signature in horse’s blood which indicates impending fracture. Armed with this information owners, vets and trainers can take preventative action, and save the horse.

A dedicated R&D centre that will cater to several research programs looking into the physiological patterns of bone in performance horses has been under construction over the past 6 months. Located in the vicinity of the Ascot racetrack, the new centre will … house nuclear scanners, ultrasound and a CT scanner.

Co-Director and Facility owner, Chris Cowcher

The Study

Subject to final ethics and regulatory approval the company aims to conduct studies over the next 24 months on horses that have been enrolled by their owners.

Last week, a pilot study was started using the only 3D equine nuclear scanner operating in the world. The team hopes this initial study will serve as a launchpad to a much larger trial looking at horses at various stages of their career.

By working alongside trainers, scientists at various institutions believe there is a good chance of locating the distinct ‘molecular signature’ to red flag areas of stressed bone so that management can be changed early, before the horse becomes sore and develops a limp.

The long-term objective is to provide the industry with a technique that may avert career-ending injuries and improve overall performance. The group is currently submitting applications for further funding through industry grants.

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For more, visit TeleMedVET.