Future of Equine Research

Attendees of the Thoroughbred International Exposition and Conference (TIEC) in Lexington, Ky., June 20-22, learned about the past and future of equine research. Edward Bowen, president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, spoke about past and current research of the Grayson-Jockey Club and other foundations raising funds for equine research.

The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, begun in 1940, has contributed more than $10 million to 31 institutions for 178 projects in the past two decades. Funding from the Grayson-Jockey Club is granted on the basis of good science and whether results of the research will have an important impact on the equine industry, said Bowen. Currently, there are 19 projects being funded at 11 facilities. Nine of the projects are two-year projects concluding this year, while 10 of the projects are new.
Two-years projects funded for the second year, the head researcher, and the institute, include:

  • Accelerated regression of endometrial cups, Dr. Doug Antczak, Cornell University;
  • Effect of airway inflammation and mucus on racehorse performance, Dr. Susan Holcombe, Michigan State University;
  • Respiratory immune responses of foals, Dr. David Horohov, Louisiana State University.
  • Role of Streptococcus bovis exotoxins in equine laminitis, Dr. Philip Johnson, University of Missouri;
  • Colonic pathophysiology in horses administered phenylbutazone, Dr. Rebecca McConnico, Louisiana State University;
  • Growth factor gene transduced stem cells for cartilage repair, Dr. Alan Nixon, Cornell University;
  • Functional analysis of equine laminar artery, Dr. John Peroni, University of Georgia;
  • Electrical cardioversion of atrial fibrillation in the horse, Dr. Peter Physick-Sheard, University of Guelph;
  • Equine genes, microarrays, and responses to Gram-positive toxins, Dr. Michel Vandenplas, University of Georgia.

The new projects include:

  • Key factors in the cause of laminitis, Dr. Rustin Moore, Louisiana State University. These investigators made huge strides toward understanding the causes of laminitis in previous work funded by the Grayson-Jockey Club. This project continues that effort. The goals are to document the blood flow to the foot before and after laminitis develops and to test a therapeutic approach to controlling that blood flow.
  • Specific immune functions involved in protecting against herpesvirus-1, Dr. Paul Lunn, University of Wisconsin. Herpesvirus is responsible for severe respiratory problems, abortion, and some neurological disorders. This group has narrowed the scope of the problem to specific immune cells in the body, which recognize and block the virus. Identifying the mechanisms of immunity by these cells is critical to the design of vaccines.
  • Vaccine development for Rhodococcal pneumonia, Dr. Diana Stone, Washington State University. Progress in designing an effective vaccine against this very damaging disease has been slow. As a result, this disease continues to be a major, life-threatening problem in foals. The mechanisms of immunity are extremely complex. This group has made strides toward that goal, and now they propose a sophisticated approach using a DNA vaccine. Their preliminary information is promising, and this could be the major step forward in the process.
  • Toward a better strangles vaccine, Dr. John Timoney, University of Kentucky. Commercial strangles vaccines have disappointing efficacy against field exposure to the disease. There are also serious complications that can arise from the vaccines. Timoney is the world expert in this field, and he has worked diligently on improving the vaccine. He has now identified 16 proteins on the organism, which participate in immunity. This project will identify those components that affect specific portions of the immune response, with the goal of incorporating them in a new generation of intranasal strangles vaccine.
  • Effects of early exercise on bones and joints, Dr. Chris Kawcak, Colorado State University. This is a collaborative effort to assess the effects of exercising young foals as a means of strengthening bones, muscles, and joints to reduce future injuries and breakdowns. Preliminary work has shown that exercise, beginning at 10 days of age and continuing through six months, does not cause any problems to foals. This study evaluates the changes in the tissues as a result of the program and compares them to foals reared in the usual fashion. The overall project involves an orthopedic research group from the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and The Netherlands.
  • Variations in equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) and how they relate to the causative organism, Dr. Linda Mansfield, Michigan State University. A big puzzle related to EPM is the variations in how the disease is expressed in horses. The parasite that causes the disease apparently is comprised of several different strains, some of which produce different clinical pictures, or perhaps just antibodies in the blood without disease. This project seeks to define the differences in the organism to help understand these variations and eventually lead to a multi-strain vaccine against this debilitating and often fatal disease.
  • Hoof growth and development: New revelations, Dr. Robert Bowker, Michigan State University. Bowker has preliminary evidence that the hoof wall grows primarily from the underlying tissue (the epidermal laminae) and only secondarily from the coronary band and that the sole originates from the bars of the foot and moves forward to surround the point of the frog. This study seeks to confirm these findings. The importance of this information is that much of the success in treating foot ailments, such as laminitis, is not because of our understanding of the biological functions of the hoof wall and sole, but due to "Mother Nature" and her abilities to heal. Better understanding of these processes will greatly improve the outcome of horses afflicted with these conditions.
  • Laminitis: Changes in the small arteries of the foot, Dr. Stephen Lewis, University of Georgia. Work at the University of Georgia has led to the concept of inflammation in these small arteries being the first change to take place in the onset of laminitis. Early detection of laminitis would be a major step in combatting this disease. This study will focus on the biochemical changes involved and the development of therapeutic strategies to reverse the inflammation.
  • Managing damage to joint cartilage resulting from exercise, Dr. Michael Orth, Michigan State University. This is an in-depth scientific evaluation of two common anti-arthritic medications in horses. The study will determine optimum doses and methods of treatment for glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. Recent work has shown that these compounds assist in repairing joint cartilage, but the mechanisms and details of their actions need to be defined.
  • Immunity in foals vaccinated for West Nile Virus, Dr. David Wilson, University of California-Davis. The goal of this project is to determine the age at which to vaccinate foals against West Nile virus. Antibodies foals receive via colostrum are detrimental to producing immunity from the vaccine. This project will determine the duration of the passive immunity, and clearly identify the appropriate age for vaccination

Other projects of interest that Bowen mentioned include studies on shoe measurements, dorsal displacement of the soft palate, ulcers, post-breeding uterine contraction problems, DNA vaccines for influenza, vesicular stomatitis, placentitis, better diagnosis and treatment of heaves, gene joint therapy, strangles, the use of oxytetracycline as a treatment for contracted tendons, and the use of blood tests to detect impending joint and bone trauma before it happens. (For more information on past studies of the Grayson-Jockey Club, visit www.grayson-jockeyclub.org.)

In addition to funding from the Grayson-Jockey Club, equine research is also supported by the Morris Animal Foundation, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Quarter Horse Association, and equine research facilities, noted Bowen. He said despite the lack of funding for equine research when compared to human medicine, equine researchers are keeping up on the latest in medicine, whether this involves DNA vaccines and stem cell research or advances in joint health. In fact, some equine research results are being expanded on by those in the human research field for the benefit of human athletes.

Bowen urged horse owners to donate, even if it’s only $5. He ended his presentation by saying, “From the human heart comes a healthier horse.”

About the Author

Sarah Evers Conrad

Sarah Evers Conrad has a bachelor’s of arts in journalism and equine science from Western Kentucky University. As a lifelong horse lover and equestrian, Conrad started her career at The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care magazine. She has also worked for the United States Equestrian Federation as the managing editor of Equestrian magazine and director of e-communications and served as content manager/travel writer for a Caribbean travel agency. When she isn’t freelancing, Conrad spends her free time enjoying her family, reading, practicing photography, traveling, crocheting, and being around animals in her Lexington, Kentucky, home.

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