Visiting Scientist Examines Equine Parasites on a Molecular Level

Mariana Ionita, DVM, PhD, is no stranger to the Gluck Equine Research Center. A resident of Romania, Ionita has been a visiting scientist in the Parasitology program four times since 2006 and completed her fourth visit to the Gluck Center at the end of August.

Ionita is part of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Bucharest in Romania, where she is a lecturer and teaches animal biology and veterinary parasitology. However, she has spent her summer vacations doing research at the Gluck Center, which she said "is worth the time to sacrifice my vacation to do research here."

Ionita has worked in the labs of Gene Lyons, PhD, and Dan Howe, PhD, each year. Since Ionita’s first visit here, Lyons spent about a week in Romania to get an understanding of the teaching and research programs there.

"She has a classical parasitology background, so she’s unique with knowing molecular biology as well," Lyons said. "It is important to have both the classical and molecular background to improve the understanding of various aspects of parasites, including their drug resistance, which is a major problem in the world."

Her first visit to the Gluck Center in 2006 was part of a faculty exchange program coordinated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and hosted by the University of Kentucky. During the first visit, which was for three months, her time was split between evaluating teaching methods in the United States and research. She also spent some time at the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

She realized from then on that she would like to have more time for research at the University of Kentucky.

In 2007 and again in 2008 she was awarded the Albert and Lorraine Clay Research Fellowship by the Gluck Center. This allowed her to spend two months each summer at the Gluck Center, where she focused on molecular parasitology research. Briefly, she worked on molecular identification of equine strongyle species using DNA extracted from eggs and PCR-based methods. Ionita used a new method (reverse line blot hybridization) which allowed simultaneous detection of up to 43 species in one assay. This molecular identification method is very useful because species identification of eggs morphologically (through a microscope) is not possible.

The following summer (2009) she took her research further by studying drug-resistant small strongyle populations in horses before and after treatment with antiparasitic drugs. She accomplished this by counting eggs per gram in feces (EPGs) and using a PCR-based RLB assay. She conducted her research in the laboratory as well as in the field. The results of the study are in the process of being published.

"I was lucky to receive the fellowship to do more research," Ionita said. "It is very good for universities to have these types of fellowships. It is important to have interaction with other researchers."

During this most recent visit, which was June through August, her research was funded by a grant from Romania she obtained herself. She spent time during the trip using the same molecular method, RLB hybridization, to identify tick-borne pathogens.

"I’m trying to apply a reverse line blot hybridization assay for molecular detection of pathogens transmitted by ticks," Ionita said.

She has focused her research on several pathogens, including Babesia and Theileria, which are carried by ticks and can cause diseases in equines, too. Lyons said this research is important in Kentucky with the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games approaching.

"There are only a few people doing research on equine parasites now," said Lyons. "This type of research is so important since there is drug resistance of several species (ascarids and small strongyles) of internal parasites in horses has been recorded. Constant monitoring of these parasites is necessary because of the ever-changing aspects of them regarding prevalence and resistance to commercial parasiticides."

Ionita said it is difficult to complete all of her molecular research in such a short time span, especially since molecular research is not a quick process. However, she noted that the research she completes at UK will assist her with molecular research she will conduct in Romania.

Ionita hopes to visit the Gluck Center again to continue her research in the near future but funding is a concern since her grant ends this year.

"I met wonderful people here, especially the Parasitology group, the teams of Dr. Lyons and Dr. Howe, (to) whom I am deeply grateful for their support, "she said.

Jenny Blandford is the Gluck Equine Research Foundation Assistant at the Gluck Center.

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