Funding Sought for Reproductive Research

When mare reproductive loss syndrome (MRLS) struck in 2001, the industry was scared and demanding answers. Nearly 3,000 of that year's pregnancies were lost, some horses were diagnosed with heart and eye problems, and no one could figure out what was going on. And there were no funds set aside to handle a battle against an unknown equine disease.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky and even outside scientists strove to rule out causes and pinpoint what was behind the unusual early and late fetal abortions, foals born weak or compromised, uveitis (eye problems), and pericarditis (heart problems). While ruling out the known viruses and toxins was quickly done, the search for answers has taken time, and money. And it's ongoing.

A core group in the Thoroughbred industry not only stepped forward to help fund early research into MRLS, but has put forth a challenge to their neighbors to step up and finish solving the mystery of MRLS, to learn more about other reproductive problems, and to be prepared for future problems.

Richard Holder, DVM, of Hagyard-Davidson-McGee, the current president of the Kentucky Association of Equine Practitioners, helped set up individual meetings at several Thoroughbred farms in the area to present information on what has been learned about MRLS, and what still needs to be done. At Holder's request, Karen McDowell, PhD (equine reproduction), and Bruce Webb, PhD (entomology), of the University of Kentucky, put together a concise accounting of the experiments that had been completed, and the next experiments their research group felt needed to be done. Holder presented clinical significance of their work and the work still to be done. (For more information on the experiments see article #4888.)

The cause of MRLS has been associated with the Eastern tent caterpillar, and specifically to the outside of the caterpillar, potentially the hairs or setae. It is theorized that the setae "puncture" the lining of the digestive tract and allow bacteria normally found there to gain access to the bloodstream. The bacteria then could move throughout the horse's body and potentially cause problems.

While keeping caterpillars away from pregnant mares will stop the abortions, there are still questions to be answered concerning the mechanisms of how the caterpillars actually cause abortions and other problems.

"Researchers should study the sequence of events between the mare's exposure to the caterpillars and the resulting dead fetus to determine the exact mechanism of action of the MRLS syndrome," said Holder. "If we know the mechanism of action, we could possibly interfere in the sequence of events and save the fetus. In studying the mechanism we could learn much about treating diseases of the equine pregnancy."

The core group--Jimmy Bell, who represents Darley, Mike Cline and Callan Strouss of Lane's End and Oak Tree, Dermot Ryan of Ashford, Garrett O'Rourke of Juddmonte, Wayne Sweezey and John Phillips of Darby Dan, Allen Kershaw of Gainsborough, Rick Nichols of Shadwell, Steve Johnson of Margaux, and Bill Thomason of Mill Ridge, who had seen the researchers' presentations before Christmas--felt the information needed to be gotten out to others who could help fund this research. These individuals have been influential in getting a reproductive research foundation fund started (see below).

Bell and the core group helped organize a meeting at Keeneland on Jan. 6 with representatives of about 40-45 leading Thoroughbred farms. The purpose of that meeting was to disseminate the information on past experiments, explain what needed to be done now, and to create a significant fund from which to draw upon for this and other reproductive research and in case of a future crisis.

Besides solving the MRLS riddle, Holder and others said that reproductive research needs to be on-going simply because the more we know about the normal mare and stallion, the better off we are when something goes wrong. He said that yes, with management, we can stop the abortion storms caused by Eastern tent caterpillars, but there could be an occasional abortion. "You can manage your farm, but you can't manage your neighbor's property," he said.

He said we don't know how much exposure it takes to cause abortion, and whether there are any residual effects from caterpillars being on pastures and how long those effects might last. He pondered: Can we create a vaccine to prevent this problem, or can we discover a treatment for early cases of MRLS when we first start seeing echogenic changes in fetal fluids?

"In August (2002), there were 20 mares put on a pasture that had not been used since 2001, and within 30 days six of those mares aborted. Why?" asked Holder. "Is there a residual effect?"

He pointed out that other benefits from reproductive research could lead to discoveries related to problems such as fescue toxicity, contracted tendons, twisted umbilical cords, placentitis, leptospirosis, and so on. The industry currently has a 3-5% loss of fetuses each year due to various causes. Perhaps, said Holder, "chasing bacteria through the mare for MRLS research might help us understand why we have these other losses."

He concluded by saying, "We want to increase the confidence that Central Kentucky--if confronted with a problem--will do whatever is necessary to solve it."


The Handling of Funds

The Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders (KTOB) Foundation will be the holding and distribution point for reproductive research funds. This is a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation, and donations to this fund are tax deductible.

Holder said the cost of MRLS to the horse industry in Kentucky in 2001 and 2002 approached a half-billion dollars. Only about $2 million has been spent on seeking answers to the problem, about half of which came from the federal government and half from the horse industry. These funds were used to rule out potential environmental causes such as mycotoxins, cyanide toxicity, grass, weather conditions, etc., and "to get us to the point we are now," said Holder.

One of the points raised was that the team in place now that has been studying MRLS has run out of funding, and unless monies are made available, they will have to disband their group and start work on other, non-MRLS-related projects that do have funding. If that happens, it would be difficult to get them back together again.

One farm has committed to $100,000 for the reproductive research fund, and five other farms have committed to $50,000 apiece. Holder said there needs to be a broad base of industry participation to make certain Central Kentucky remains the Thoroughbred breeding capital of the world.

David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/KTOB, said the reproductive foundation funds would be used 100% for research. No portion of the monies would be used for overhead or other expenses. He noted that even the refreshments at the Keeneland meeting were paid for by Hagyard-Davidson-McGee and Rood and Riddle veterinary firms.

The foundation would be overseen in much the same manner as the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. The advisory committee for the foundation includes Nichols, Johnson, Thomason, O'Rourke, and Bell. Additional advisors will be added to this group. A group of veterinarians will be a "screening" committee to review suggested research for funding. Those include Drs. Bill Bernard, Doug Byars, Jim Morehead, Michelle LeBlanc, Richard Holder, Tom Riddle, and Stuart Brown. Also, a group of scientists from universities across the country are available as advisors.

While the reproductive research funded by this foundation can be conducted outside Kentucky, the goal is to focus on problems and research within the state.

Anyone interested in more information or wanting to contribute to MRLS and future reproductive research should contact Switzer at 859/381-1414, or send donations to KTOB Foundation, Reproduction Research, 4079 Iron Works Parkway, Lexington, KY 40511.


About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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