Specializing in a particular equine disease can make laboratories like the Department of Veterinary Science's Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky highly reputable. But when that particularity is recognized by the Animal World Health Organization (OIE) in Paris, France, that high reputation equates with worldwide responsibility.

The OIE names a handful of research laboratories "OIE reference laboratories" for specific diseases. These laboratories--always led by a recognized "expert"--research, investigate, innovate, develop, store, test, consult, and advise on the diseases they're responsible for, all in the name of the OIE. It's an honor, a privilege, and above all a major commitment and responsibility. Across the planet there are 236 OIE reference laboratories covering 112 animal diseases. The Gluck Equine Research Center is one of them. It alone covers three animal diseases--all specifically equine-related.

Peter Timoney, PhD, FRCVS, professor and former department chair and director of the Gluck Center, is an OIE-recognized expert on equine viral arteritis (EVA) as well as equine rhinopneumonitis; and Thomas Chambers, PhD, professor of veterinary virology at the Gluck Center, is an OIE-recognized expert on equine influenza.

"Diseases are international in their circulation, and the (OIE) reference labs provide focal points of expertise that countries can turn to for assistance as the needs arise," Chambers explained.

By collaborating with related OIE reference laboratories across the globe (currently, three others for equine influenza, three for rhinopneumonitis, and one for EVA), Chambers and Timoney contribute to a better understanding of these diseases to help improve prevention, detection, and treatment, as well as more effective worldwide management in controlling disease spread.

"The reference labs need to be multiple, because the world is a big place and our individual reach is small," Chambers said. "Our networking synergizes our individual efforts."

Gluck first became an OIE reference lab more than 20 years ago, said Timoney. He was named an OIE expert for EVA in 1991, and that same year the late George Allen, PhD, a professor at the Gluck Center, was named an OIE expert for equine rhinopneumonitis. In 1993, Chambers became an OIE expert for equine influenza. When Allen died in 2008, Timoney was nominated to replace him, and the OIE approved his appointment.

An institution's qualification as an OIE reference laboratory is linked to its disease experts, Timoney said. When an institution's expert dies or retires, that institution does not necessarily continue as an OIE reference laboratory. The institution's director is invited to propose a new expert candidate that must go through the OIE's approval process verification of the candidate's expertise by the OIE's Biological Standards Commission and receive ratification by the OIE's General Assembly.

The country's chief veterinary officer does the nominating of candidate experts to the OIE, Timoney added. This was the case for all three of Gluck's experts as well as when Timoney was nominated to replace Allen in 2008.

An OIE reference laboratory's list of obligations is extensive. The full list can be found on the OIE's website, but some primary examples are listed here:

  • To use, promote, and disseminate diagnostic methods validated according to OIE Standards;
  • To recommend the prescribed and alternative tests or vaccines as OIE Standards;
  • To develop reference material in accordance with OIE requirements, and implement and promote the application of OIE Standards; and
  • To store and distribute to national laboratories biological reference products and any other reagents used in the diagnosis and control of the designated pathogens or diseases.

These obligations can be "time-consuming, laborious, and even onerous at times," said Timoney. The labs not only provide testing for specific infectious diseases but they are also required to submit a detailed annual report of their activities as a reference laboratory. Furthermore, all this is done on a voluntary basis.

"Labor of love?" says Timoney. "I certainly don't feel obligated to do it. I wouldn't do it if I didn't feel it was worthwhile."

Both Timoney and Chambers said this work is just a part of their commitment to better our understanding and control of equine diseases--not to mention their "societal obligation" as qualified experts, Timoney said. And working with other committed experts throughout the world is a major benefit. "Our working relationship has been very rewarding, and I can't imagine what we would do without it," Chambers said in particular of his collaboration with experts at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, U.K., and at the Irish Equine Centre in Johnstown, Ireland.

As one of the very few institutions specializing uniquely in equine infectious diseases--which can be traced back to work conducted in the department since the early 20th century, according to Timoney--the Gluck Equine Research Center is a logical choice as an OIE reference laboratory. Even so, the label brings with it a stamp of international approval.

"The OIE reference laboratory designation is a sign of expertise," said Chambers.

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

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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