Older Horses: Researcher Awarded Grant for Aging Study

Kristine Urschel, PhD, assistant professor in Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Kentucky, has been awarded a two-year $100,000 grant by the Morris Animal Foundation. Her study will be supervised by David Horohov, PhD, William Robert Mills Chair in Equine Immunology at the Gluck Equine Research Center, and she will be assisted by PhD student Ashley Wagner.

Urschel is studying the change in protein synthesis rates as horses age in order to develop better feeding and management strategies for their later years so they will maintain muscle. In the two-part study investigators first will examine whole-body and muscle rates of protein synthesis in mature (approximately 8-14 years old) versus older (older than 20 years old) horses to document changes in synthesis rates over time. Then they will compare whole-body and muscle rates of protein synthesis in older horses exhibiting symptoms of equine Cushing's disease and those without Cushing's.

Urschel anticipates this will be the first in a series of studies during the next several years about protein synthesis in geriatric horses. The end goal of the research will be to "develop dietary or management strategies to maintain muscle and quality of life (in aging horses), be that through changes in diet, or the development of a low-impact exercise program, or some other management strategy," she explained.

Urschel said because horses have become "part of the family," more owners are retiring their horses, which are living into their late 20s and early 30s. This research could impact many horse owners, from those with large competition barns to those with a few horses in the backyard.

Urschel came to UK in August 2008 after completing her bachelor's and PhD degrees at the University of Alberta, Canada, and post-doctoral research at Virginia Polytechnic and State University. She began her equine research while at Virginia Tech, and this led to an interest in equine metabolism and aging.

According to Urschel, this is the first study of its kind to focus on changing protein synthesis in aging horses, and it ties into Horohov's earlier research of inflammatory mediator production in geriatric horses.

Both Urschel and Horohov anticipate this grant study will stimulate other equine research at UK.

"Hopefully it will bring attention to UK," said Urschel. "I am a new researcher and optimistic that because it’s an area of public interest, it will also bring attention to my research program. I would love to see how the study fits with research on human aging and muscle loss. It might bring us funding from sources that is normally reserved for research on humans."

"It sort of gives us a whole new direction," said Horohov. "The work she's doing will add to an overall understanding of geriatric biology in the horse."

The Morris Animal Foundation, founded by Mark Morris, DVM, in 1948, promotes and funds research to protect, treat, and cure large and small companion animals and wildlife. The Foundation has previously funded research efforts that led to the Potomac horse fever vaccine and development of the equine genome, and it has also supported a program it established called the Equine Health Initiative. A group of scientific advisory boards make the awards based on available funding, scientific soundness, and topic relevance.

"Although aging isn't traditionally considered a disease, one of the areas the Morris Animal Foundation is committed to is geriatric animal research, so aging fits directly under its mission," Urschel said. "Most of their geriatric research so far has been in dogs and has focused on other elements of aging such as nervous system function and chronic diseases. This study will look at entirely different aspects of aging from what MAF has funded in the past, although the end goal is still aimed at improving the quality of life of aging animals."

Natalie Voss is a University of Kentucky equine intern and undergraduate student in equine science.

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More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK's Equine Initiative.

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