Horses have helped humankind throughout the ages: plowing fields, hauling goods, transporting people, and providing companionship. Now, horses may even help us in our battle against one of our most dreaded diseases, shedding light on cancer mysteries that may one day lead to new treatments and even cures.
But the help that horses offer lies not in the cancers they do get, but the cancers they don’t get. This “white on black” approach is one of Dr. Gordon Woods' research projects that interestingly enough started out as a quest to improve in vitro fertilization for equines but led investigators down a path of cancer discoveries. Dr. Woods has now brought his innovative research to Colorado State University where he was recently named to the John Alexander Chair in Large Animal Reproduction and also Director of the Equine Reproduction Laboratory. He began his duties at Colorado State on January 1.
“Horses have a much lower incidence of cancer than humans and even when they do get cancer, the tumors are normally benign,” said Dr. Woods. “We were wondering, why? In humans, 24 percent of us die of cancer while that number is only 8 percent in horses. Why has prostate cancer never once been diagnosed in a stallion? Why is breast cancer so rare in mares?”
Work done while Dr. Woods was at Idaho showed that calcium levels in the horse’s cells were substantially lower than those in human cells. The results were an off-shoot of studies done that failed to produce foals with in vitro fertilization. Working in the two fields of reproduction and oncology offers dual challenges but interesting opportunities, noted Dr. Woods, which was a primary reason he decided to make the move to Colorado State University.
“Working with Dirk Vanderwall and the University of Idaho research team was a wonderful experience, but we can do so much more here,” said Dr. Woods. “With the Animal Cancer Center, the Equine Reproduction Laboratory, all the work in calcium channels going on in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, and the Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory, there are just an amazing number of extremely talented people here pushing toward common goals. I am just astonished at the opportunities and excited to be aligned with so many people who are nationally and internationally recognized for their contributions to oncology and reproductive science. I also plan to work with the Denver Medical Center, which will enable us to enhance our studies in human diseases using horse models.”
Dr. Woods created a world-wide buzz in 2003 when he and his research team helped create the planet’s first cloned equine, a mule named Idaho Gem. The mule went on to success in the mule racing circuit and was followed by several other cloned mules. The technology developed by Dr. Woods’ research team holds the potential of enhancing the success rates of equine in vitro procedures which had been notoriously low. The recognition of calcium as an important cell regulator in equine reproduction also led to the hypothesis that the lack of cellular calcium is important to the horse’s apparent resistance to cancer development. Dr. Woods plans to expand on those studies at Colorado State University.
“While the research component of my work is thrilling, I also am looking forward to the very important service and teaching work done at the Equine Reproduction Laboratory,” said Dr. Woods. “I have three extraordinary faculty members with whom I have the privilege to work – Drs. Elaine Carnivale, Jason Bremer and Pat McCue – and we are putting together a team that builds on our individual strengths to create dynamic programs in research and teaching, as well as excellent service to our clients.”
Dr. Woods received his DVM from Colorado State University in 1978. He then completed a residency in large animal reproduction from the University of Pennsylvania. He received his master’s degree and PhD from the University of Wisconsin before joining the faculty at Cornell at the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine. He then was on the faculty at Washington State University before joining the University of Idaho in 1988. Dr. Woods is a Diplomate of the American College of Theriogenologists and has received numerous awards during his career including the Idaho Veterinarian of the Year, Idaho Horse Council Legend, Norden Distinguished Teacher Award, and Gamma Sigma Delta Research Award.
Dr. Woods is the first Professor to be named to the John Alexander Chair in Large Animal Reproduction. The Chair was created in 2001 to honor John Alexander, a member of the Professional Veterinary Medical Class of 2000, following his death in 1999 from a skiing accident. Final funding for the Chair fell into place in 2006 when John’s uncle, Duncan Alexander, made an additional gift in honor of his nephew. Mr. Alexander also recently donated to the Equine Reproduction Laboratory the horse, He’s Pretty Smooth, pictured here with Dr. Woods.
The College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences welcomes Dr. Woods to Colorado State University and the Fort Collins community and wishes him the best of luck in all his endeavors.