Take more than 1,000 veterinarians and veterinary students from around the globe, some armed with presentations representing thousands of hours worth of equine research, and add to it some tartan, bagpipes, and Scottish fare. Drop it all into a festival city known for its striking castle and Georgian architecture. What's the outcome? A memorable equine research meeting offering some of the latest in veterinary advancements from the best and brightest minds in equine veterinary medicine, all against a pretty fantastic backdrop.

The Horse attended three days of the 46th British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) Congress held in Edinburgh, Scotland, last September. Following are some research highlights presented at the meeting. Their application is far-reaching--some findings are already making a difference in how we care for our horses, while others might lead to better preventive medicine or treatments for them.

The Practitioner's Crucial Role

The conference had a royal beginning with a presentation from HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, president of the
Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI, the international governing body of equestrian sport), an international equestrian athlete, and a recently elected member of the International Olympic Committee. She spoke to the audience in a recorded presentation in which she praised the endurance of broodmares--as her own pregnancy kept her from attending BEVA at the last minute--and she thanked the veterinarians for their pursuit for advancing horse health.

"At any level of riding, the relationship with your veterinarian is one of the most important cogs in the wheel," she said. She noted how the FEI and BEVA share a common goal: the welfare of the horse.

Josh Slater, BVSc, BVM&S, PhD, Dipl. ECEIM, MRCVS, president of BEVA, and professor of equine clinical studies at the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom, pointed out the £4-billion (more than $8 billion U.S.) impact horses have on the European economy, and he stressed how vital the practitioner's role is in caring for horses. He described a scenario that pointed out just how far equine veterinary medicine has come: "Two athletes limped into two different clinics. One is seen, radiographed, and undergoes arthroscopy the next day. The second waits a week to eight weeks for diagnostic images, 10 days for a report, and receives arthroscopy three months later. The first is a Thoroughbred. The second? A 25-year-old amateur footballer."

A Gene at a Time

Part of the reason horses are becoming so well-understood and are receiving such specialized care is scientists' growing understanding of the horse's physiological makeup. Douglas F. Antczak, VMD, PhD, director of the James A. Baker Institute for Animal Health at Cornell University, gave the John Hickman Memorial Lecture, entitled "The Genetics Revolution," a look back at the progress of the Equine Genome Group and its recent acquisition of the full equine genome sequence.

"This has been an unprecedented collaboration that has extended over the past 10 years from 22 laboratories in 12 countries," said Antczak. But the work hasn't ended, and the impact of having the entire sequence available could be staggering. "In 10 years there will be available tests for more genetic defects (several tests have emerged already), and there are more (studies on gene characteristics) being published every three months. Scientists are examining complex genetic traits that can have both inherited and environmental factors--such as recurrent airway obstruction (heaves) and skin tumors--and traits such as conformation and lameness.

The completed genome "will change the way in which we think about modifying our feed, training, and care techniques," he said. "I see a very murky, but exciting future for us, and I look forward to working with you on it." (See article #11042 at TheHorse.com for the full story.)

State-of-the-Art Orthopedic Topics

Wayne McIlwraith, BVSc, PhD, FRCVS, DSc, DrMedVet (hc), Dipl. ACVS, Barbara Cox Anthony Chair and
Director of Orthopaedic Research at Colorado State University, and Michael Schramme,
DrMedVet, CertEO, PhD, Dipl. ECVS, associate professor of equine surgery and director of the Equine Orthopedic Research Laboratory at North Carolina State University, were panelists in this session, which highlighted recent research on topics relating to equine joints. Some of the points they highlighted follow.

Intra-articular joint treatment McIlwraith reviewed a study that showed weekly intra-articular (IA) use of polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (Adequan) in coffin joint lameness responded very favorably. Veterinarians have balked at this method over the years due to work showing there was a risk of joint infection. However, if a trained veterinarian administers the medication according to a specific protocol, it can be safe and useful. "I've always considered it a better product used intra-articularly," said Schramme, who added he hoped this was the rumblings of an "Adequan revival."

Collateral desmitis of the coffin joint McIlwraith said until recently this has been "considered the second most common tissue injury in the foot," but researchers have suspected that it is being overdiagnosed on MRI. He said several studies in 2007 had confirmed this, including one out of the University of Pennsylvania that showed if the horse's foot was placed at a particular angle in the center of a closed magnet MRI, structures can line up so that there appears to be an asymmetric signal. Such a signal can denote an injury. Scientists were able to mimic this "magic angle artifact" phenomenon. Another group of researchers was able to show the same situation with an open, standing MRI. "They concluded that every effort should be made to position the horse standing squarely on all four limbs prior to commencing MRI, and to minimize leaning during image acquisition," said McIlwraith. This will help prevent misdiagnosis of the condition.

Shock wave therapy and healthy tissue Schramme described a study that examined the biomechanical composition and metabolic activity of tenocytes (tendon cells) in normal tendons exposed to extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT). Results showed that the synthesis of glycosaminoglycans, which form an important component to connective tissue, was increased within three hours of applying ESWT, but it was decreased after six weeks. The same thing was found with tissue degradation. "The application of ESWT damages collagen and stimulates metabolism in normal tendons, and it would be better to avoid exposing healthy tissue to ESWT," said Schramme. "Focused shock waves were potentially more damaging to tissue." (See article #11043 at TheHorse.com for the full story.)

State-of-the-Art Gastrointestinal Tract Topics

Debra C. Sellon, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, a professor of equine medicine at Washington State University, and Bill Bernard, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, of Equine Internal Medicine in Lexington, Ky., presented the latest gastrointestinal tract studies to hit the veterinary journals. Here are some of the items they discussed:

  • Intravenous lidocaine, commonly used in colic cases, did not enhance the intestinal motility of normal horses, but researchers suggest this might prove different in horses with clinical disease.
  • The yeast Saccharomyces boulardii could help decrease the severity and duration of clinical signs in horses with acute enterocolitis.
  • A retrospective study showed 27% of horses (in a group of 25 horses, 24 of which were less than a year old) didn't survive long term following acute small intestinal obstruction due to ascarid obstruction, and 72% of the study group had anthelmintic treatment within 24 hours of the onset. This is likely due to increased ascarid burdens due to ivermectin resistance.

Clinical Research Sessions

Nearly 90 abstracts were presented by graduate students, postdoctoral candidates, and seasoned veterinarians. Slater said there was intense competition to present at the Congress. Prizes were presented to two of the student authors.

Cartilage injury One prize went to Ceri Sherlock, BVetMed (Hon), MRCVS, a large animal resident in the University of Georgia Department of Large Animal Medicine. Sherlock and her colleagues completed research that showed low-field MRI (the lower-cost, portable version) can be useful in diagnosing cartilage injury of the fetlock that doesn't show up on radiographs.

Osteochondral disease A prize also went to Elizabeth Barr, BVMS, CertES(Orth), DipECVS, a PhD student in veterinary clinical sciences at the University of Liverpool in the U.K., for her research involving post-mortem examinations of fetlock joints for palmar/plantar osteochondral disease (POD, or "traumatic osteochondrosis") in 64 Thoroughbreds. She found evidence in post-morten findings of dorsal (from the top) impact injuries and other signs of joint arthritis that palmar/plantar osteochondral disease is likely a manifestation of traumatic overload on the joint. Barr and her co-authors hope that ongoing research into this condition will help alleviate a common cause of fetlock pain in racehorses. (See article #11045 at TheHorse.com for the full story.)

Sarcoids Jeremy Kemp-Symonds, MRCVS, a PhD student at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, has possibly linked common face flies to the spread of sarcoids, one of the most commonly encountered equine neoplasias (tumors). It is conceivable that the risk of spreading sarcoids could be minimized through fly management techniques. The research also further supports that bovine papillomaviruses (BPV) are involved in causing equine sarcoids in horses. (See article #11046 at TheHorse.com for the full story.)

Another veterinarian presented a study in which he and his colleagues discovered new gene expression pathways in equine sarcoids. Zhengqiang Yuan, PhD, a research scientist in veterinary pathological sciences at the University of Glasgow's veterinary school, hopes this will help identify new targets for treating the tumors. "We hope to follow up to find their (the pathways') role in disease," said Yuan. The research group demonstrated that BPV intensifies the expression of a destructive enzyme known to be a product of extracellular matrix degeneration. This could be one of many inflammatory targets the group could pursue when developing treatment options. (See article #11047 at TheHorse.com for the full story.)

Take-Home Message

At any given moment, somewhere in the world there's a scientist conducting studies that will ultimately advance veterinary medicine and how you care for your horses. Three very full days of presentations are a lot to fit into one story, and The Horse knows you'll want to read more about the advances veterinarians covered at this meeting. Visit article #11048 at TheHorse.com  to read more research results presented at the BEVA meeting.

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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