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Iron Rose Ranch chair benefits equine orthopaedics
In 2006 and 2007, the American public was captivated by the story of Barbaro. Winner of the Kentucky Derby, Barbaro suffered a catastrophic injury during the Preakness Stakes. The country was inspired by the thoroughbred’s spirit and by the valiant efforts in Pennsylvania to help him recover from the life-threatening injury. After months of treatment, including six surgeries, Barbaro’s owners made the difficult decision to euthanize him, concerned that his pain was unmanageable and he no longer could bear weight in any of his legs.
Equine clinicians at Colorado State University followed Barbaro’s progress closely, knowing firsthand that the chances were slim he’d beat the odds and survive the fractures to three bones in his right hind leg. But they also knew that the work they were doing then and today may one day help predict, prevent, and treat injuries like that suffered by Barbaro and other equine athletes, and turn the odds in their favor.
Dr. Chris Kawcak is one researcher at CSU working on these advances. He holds the Iron Rose Ranch Chair in Equine Musculoskeletal Disease and Injury, created in 2004 to address the problems that cause equine musculoskeletal disease and injury, as well as improve prevention and treatment of these conditions. His work, along with that of other clinicians and researchers at Colorado State University’s Orthopaedic Research Center, is benefiting from private investment into research and clinical work that is helping horses today and perhaps people tomorrow.
“The funding from Iron Rose Ranch establishes a position that goes way beyond my tenure to provide an endless resource, allowing us to continually fill this position and continually advance in this area of research,” said Dr. Kawcak, an Associate Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences. “The chair keeps in line with the University spirit of aggressively working for the things you think are important. With the funding from the chair, I can really focus on research areas in which there is a need, and it has opened whole new realms of study for me, particularly in the field of computer modeling.”Dr. Kawcak has several areas of interest in his research. The first is to improve early diagnosis of joint disease with improved imaging techniques and methodology using MRI, CT scan, and X-ray. He is working with researchers in biomedical engineering to develop and evaluate biomechanical models that show the joint, show how the animal uses a leg, and can provide a computer simulation of risk factors such as the shape of the joint and neuromuscular variation.
“This is our biggest push right now as it gives a more objective way to assess how we can reduce stress on joints as well as identify at-risk horses,” said Dr. Kawcak. “We also are working on a wireless kinematic system to monitor gait. A small sensor is placed on the horse and we can monitor how they use their limbs when they run. We hope to be able to detect patterns that predispose a horse to joint disease or to fracture.”
Dr. Kawcak and the team at the Orthopaedic Research Center also are using imaging to understand physiological characteristics that may lead to the type of fracture suffered by Barbaro. This work, along with a study of methods that may improve fracture healing, is sponsored by the Jockey Club, a private foundation. Other focuses of the research group at the center include gene therapy to improve cartilage healing, stem cell therapy for soft tissue healing, testing of new medications and therapies, track surface studies, and investigating integrative therapies to improve the field of equine rehabilitation. While work is conducted specifically in the best interest of the horse, similar problems in humans may one day benefit from research and clinical cases at CSU.
“Without the Iron Rose Ranch Chair and other private funding, much of this research simply would not be possible,” said Dr. Kawcak, who also treats horses at the Iron Rose Ranch. “With this funding, I can pursue research interests that will benefit the horse, as well as continue my work as a clinician, something that is equally important to me.”
Iron Rose Ranch, located near Carbondale, Colorado, specializes in breeding some of the finest cutting horses in the nation. In 2007, Iron Rose Ranch created a second chair at Colorado State University, the Iron Rose Ranch Chair in Equine Reproduction.