Treatments using stem cells, which can replenish tissues with new cells, offer tremendous potential for healing wounds and treating various diseases, but we need to learn much more about these cells before this potential can be realized.
Van de Walle’s research on adult stem cells spans multiple veterinary species to understand the roles of these cells in healing and cancer formation. Members of her lab are looking at how equine mesenchymal stem cells, stem cells collected from horse blood, encourage wound healing and protect against bacterial and viral infections in horses. They also study how epithelial stem cells, the cells that are thought to originate several cancers, are regulated in the mammary gland of horses. These studies are aimed at understanding why horses rarely develop breast cancer, a cancer that is so common in humans, cats, and dogs.
A better understanding of both the benefits and limits of stem cell treatments is required before stem cells can be used to develop safer, more targeted therapies. Through this comparative approach using multiple species, Van de Walle’s work is also finding differences in mammary stem cells in species that are more or less prone to suffer from breast cancer, looking for clues to how breast cancer can develop.