The Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) announced Feb. 2 that it would fund $10,800 for researchers at the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center to conduct a genome-wide association study of horses for susceptibility to equine arteritis virus (EAV).

EAV is the causative agent of equine viral arteritis (EVA), which is characterized by upper respiratory tract disease in adult horses, abortion in broodmares, and pneumonia in young foals. Stallions can become long-term carriers of the virus and transmit it during breeding. Chronically infected stallions can transmit the virus to susceptible mares through natural breeding as well as embryo transfer. EVA appears to be on the rise because horses are increasingly transported nationally and internationally for breeding and competition, according to Udeni Balasuriya, BVSc, PhD, associate professor of virology at the Gluck Center.

Results of previous studies in Balasuriya's laboratory revealed that an in vitro (in the lab) test could be used to predict which horses are highly susceptible to EAV infection. The work in connection with the Morris Animal Foundation Grant entails testing susceptible and resistant horses with more than 54,000 genetic markers identified during the sequencing of the horse genome. The distribution of markers for the two groups will be compared, and those that are unique to one group will be used to uncover genes that play a role in viral infection or immune response.

Others involved in the study include Ernie Bailey, PhD, immunogenetics researcher and professor at the Gluck Center; Peter Timoney, MVB, PhD, FRCVS, Frederick Van Lennep Chair in Equine Veterinary Science at the Gluck Center; and Yun Young Go, a PhD candidate at the Gluck Center. The study is part of Go's ongoing PhD program research.

"The Morris Animal Foundation has funded this pilot project to identify the specific genes that make horses susceptible to EAV infection," Balasuriya said. "Findings from this study would allow us to establish a strong link between host genetics and susceptibility to infectious diseases agents. This is a new area of research that combines expertise in equine genetics and infectious diseases at the Gluck Center, We would like to thank MAF for supporting this important study by providing funding.

"Results of this study will enhance our understanding of the carrier state as well as susceptibility to the disease, EVA," Balasuriya continued. "In the long run, findings from this study will allow us to develop diagnostic tools to predict possible carrier stallions of EAV and prevent further spreading of the virus."

Balasuriya said if the data from this pilot study suggest that susceptibility/resistance to EAV infection is indeed associated with a specific gene(s), they will also test 120 semen samples using the same techniques in this study in a separate follow-up study.

The Morris Animal Foundation, which supports research to prevent, diagnose, treat, and even cure disease in companion animals, horses, llamas and wildlife, has committed to funding nearly 30 new and continuing large animal health studies in 2011. The Foundation has committed $1.7 million toward equine health and welfare research throughout the next three years.

Jenny Blandford is the Gluck Equine Research Foundation assistant at the Gluck Center.

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