UK Researcher Awarded $2.9 Million for EAV Research

Dr. Udeni Balasuriya

Udeni Balasuriya, BVSc, MS, PhD, a professor at the University of Kentucky (UK) Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center, recently received $2.9 million to identify the genetic factors responsible for establishment of the equine arteritis virus (EAV) carrier state in stallions. The five-year grant was awarded by the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

According to Nancy Cox, MS, PhD, associate dean for research in UK’s College of Agriculture and administrative leader for UK’s Ag Equine Programs, Balasuriya’s grant was ranked the highest in its category, unusual for a USDA grant program that normally targets food animals.

This is one of the largest grants awarded in the College of Agriculture in the last year, she said, and is unique in that it includes funds for getting results out to the public in the fastest, most efficient way.

Equine viral arteritis (EVA) outbreaks result in significant economic losses to the equine industry due to high rates of foal loss in pregnant mares, death in young foals, and establishment of the carrier state in stallions. The virus remains in the equine population between breeding seasons by persisting in carrier stallions.

The project stems from research by a graduate student, Yun Young Go, who worked in Balasuriya’s Gluck Center laboratory. Her initial focus involved characterizing the EAV target cell population(s) in equine white blood cells. White blood cells are important because they eliminate cells attacked by the virus.

According to Balasuriya, the study demonstrated that EAV could infect isolated cultured white blood cells in the lab.

“Subsequently, this study was expanded to include the latest information available from the equine genome,” he said.

The genome studies were done in collaboration with Ernie Bailey, PhD, and James MacLeod, VMD, PhD, both researchers at the Gluck Center. Co-principal investigators of the study include eight Gluck Center faculty members—Sergey Artiushin, PhD; Bailey; Frank Cook, PhD; David Horohov, PhD; MacLeod; Edward Squires, MS, PhD; Peter Timoney, FRCVS, PhD; and Mats Troedsson, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACT, ECAR. This collaboration includes expertise in the areas of immunogenetics, genomics, molecular virology and viral pathogenesis, equine reproduction, equine immunology, diagnostic pathology, molecular and cell biology, and equine infectious diseases.

The study will further investigate the possibility that susceptibility might vary in different horses. The team will study the nature of the susceptibility first in more isolated cells in the laboratory, then later with stallions.

“This cutting-edge research under the leadership of Dr. Balasuriya will use new approaches to identify genetic factors associated with the establishment of persistent EAV in stallions,” said Troedsson, director of the Gluck Equine Research Center and chair of the Department of Veterinary Science at UK. “The recent sequencing of the equine genome by an international consortium, including several scientists from the Gluck Equine Research Center, has made this kind of research possible. Exploring genetic variations among horses to explain mechanisms on how they respond to viral infections is an exciting research area that is expected to not only improve our understanding of viral diseases in general, but also provide veterinarians and horse owners with new diagnostics and tools for individual management and treatments in the future.”

The study will provide research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to address EAV through integrating functional genomic studies and education. Findings from the studies will be disseminated through seminars and symposiums.

Jenny Evans is the Gluck Equine Research Foundation coordinator at the Gluck Center.

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More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK Ag Equine Programs.

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