British Equine Fertility Unit to Close

The University of Cambridge's Equine Fertility Unit (EFU), which among other projects over the years produced Europe's first test tube foal, will close in September due to lack of funding, said facility head Twink Allen, BVSc, PhD, ScD, DESM, MRCVS.

The EFU was established 37 years ago and was funded by the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association (TBA) using money from the Horse Race Betting Levy Board. The Fertility Unit had requested £450,000 ($889,000) per year for the next 10 years. They previously had received £300,000 per year.

"The Thoroughbred Breeders' Association has pulled the plug on us, and that is very sad and very stupid," Allen stated.

According to Allen, the group at EFU was progressing on three major studies at the time of the announcement that their funding had been removed. These studies included investigation of the maternal recognition of pregnancy signal, work on equine embryonic stem cells for tendon repair, and a study on the effects of vasodilatory agents on uterine and placental blood flow.

Allen said the work on biological pregnancy signals in the horse was progressing.

"We are getting some very good results now on the maternal recognition of pregnancy signal--that is when does a mare know she' pregnant and how does she know she's pregnant during the very early stages?" Allen said. "Somehow the little conceptus has to send a signal to the mother and tell her, biologically, that she's pregnant and stop her cycling and stay in the pregnancy mode.

"I think we're right on track and just about to discover this signal in the horse," he added. "The horse and the camel are the only species in which we don't know the nature of that very important signal.

"Remember, we've shown that about 8% of Thoroughbred pregnancies are lost during the first 42 days of gestation, and a significant portion of that 8% are bound to be because the mother failed to recognize the signal from the embryo, or the embryo failed to send the signal, and she simply came back to estrus," Allen said.

Allen noted that while some Equine Fertility Unit studies will be transferred to other institutions, the pregnancy signal research is not expected to be picked up by another group, and that mystery will remain unresolved.

According to Allen, the "real tragedy" of the closure will be the loss of the Equine Fertility Unit facility, situated in Newmarket.

"It's the best facility in the world, and I know I'm biased, but I've seen all the facilities, and the reason they're the best is that we've got purpose-designed laboratories and horse handling facilities on the doorstep of Newmarket," Allen said. "Therefore, we have collaboration with two big equine practices, access to all the Newmarket stud farms and trainer's yards, Cambridge only 12 miles away, and the Animal Health Trust about three miles away--you can't cobble that combination together anywhere else in the world."

As Allen was preparing to retire this year, the Unit had recruited a replacement--who Allen referred to as the "hottest property around," but declined to name--to take over the position. The existing staff members will lose their jobs.

TBA chairman Philip Freedman told Britain's Racing Post there was support at £300,000 a year, and that the TBA would have been "irresponsible to recommend providing extra funding we wouldn't have been willing to put in ourselves."

The EFU has prompted dissatisfaction among TBA members in recent times as its work has diversified into artificial insemination and embryo transplant in non-Thoroughbreds.

The Levy Board took over the provision of central funding for the EFU from the TBA in 2005 on an initial two-year commitment with a view to extending that support for a further two years.

The TBA had been prepared to make £1.5 million available to the unit over the next five years in a package that included a partnership with the University of Nottingham's veterinary school. However, the EFU maintains that a sum of £450,000 per year is required, with a 10-year guarantee on the funding, for the deal to be viable.

Freedman explained that with the total cost to the industry rising to £6 million, the TBA was not prepared to give the unequivocal backing sought by the Levy Board, which was necessary for the funds to be released.

The TBA is the signatory on the lease for the EFU's 114-acre site on the Stetchworth Estate and also bears legal responsibility for the unit's 10 employees.

The EFU has at times relied upon the financial support of wealthy owners and breeders, and there is speculation that a rescue package including private sponsors may yet be forthcoming to keep the EFU going.--Erin Ryder and Mark Popham

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