A Look at Serum-Based Proteins for Horses

Performance horses experience high levels of physiologic stress—training, trailering, competing, and new environments all take their toll.

Photo: The Horse Staff

Performance horses experience high levels of physiologic stress. Training, trailering, competing, and new environments all take their toll.

Physiologic stress can cause a cascade of ill effects, most commonly in the form of gastrointestinal (GI) ulcers, sore joints, and respiratory issues—leaving owners, riders, and trainers searching for options that will help keep their horses healthy.

Researchers at Iowa State and Texas A&M universities recently have evaluated serum-based bioactive proteins (SBPs, more on what they are in a moment) and their potential to fight numerous stress-induced problems in performance horses. Thus far, the researchers say the results of this nondrug approach have been promising.

What are SBPs?

Blood carries a variety of functional proteins throughout the body, which are recruited to specific locations based upon immune signals. Proteins such as immunoglobulins, interleukins, and growth factors (e.g., transforming growth factor β1, insulinlike growth factor, and platelet-derived growth factor) are in circulation at any given time.

Serum-based bioactive proteins are rich in these naturally occurring proteins that have evolved to work together. In fact, the most distinguishing characteristics of SBPs are their natural complexity and ability to act in concert with one another. Researchers say this natural complexity also allows SBPs to support optimal function across different equine body systems.

Equine Clinical Research into SBPs

Scott McClure, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, ACVSMR, associate professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Iowa State University, has studied SBPs and their potential use in ulcer prevention.

“We know from experience that 70 to 80% of otherwise healthy horses will develop endoscopically detectable GI ulceration with training,” says McClure. “That is obviously a huge percentage. Anything we can do to reduce that number will have a significant impact on horse health.”

McClure looked at the incidence of ulcer formation in training horses receiving an oral SBP-based product versus a negative control group. His results indicated that SBPs successfully prevented ulcer formation compared to the placebo group.

Another SBP research area is in musculoskeletal support. Work conducted at Texas A&M University under the direction of the late Josie Coverdale, PhD, associate professor of equine sciences, indicated that SBPs had a positive effect on equine mobility. Using kinematic analysis, her team found an SBP-dose-dependent improvement in both range of motion and stride length, with trends toward improvement at 14 days and significant improvement at 28 days. Coverdale’s team is continuing the research she began into the effects of SBPs on musculoskeletal support.

An Anti-Inflammatory Effect

How orally administered SBPs modulate physiologic responses across these body systems has not yet been fully illuminated.

Scientists theorize that the mode of action could be linked to immune tissue in the GI tract.

Research suggests improved intestinal barrier function and reduction in GI mucosal pro-inflammatory mediators are important components of activity. Other data suggest SBPs attenuate the inflammatory response in models of acute lung injury. The common denominator linking local activity in the gut with a systemic anti-inflammatory response is apparent modulation of intestinal regulatory T-cells.

History of Use in Other Species

While SBPs are novel in the equine arena, they’re not new to animal health, having been used in multiple species for more than 30 years. The products McClure and Coverdale have studied are derived from bovine serum. More than 30 years ago, when researchers began studying the plasma’s potential uses, the first proteins came from pigs. Researchers discovered that mixing porcine serum-derived proteins (plasma) into piglet feed improved health and growth and reduced post-weaning mortality. Now, most piglet starter diets in North America contain plasma proteins.

Since first using porcine plasma, researchers have continued to investigate and refine bioactive proteins, better understanding their modes of action. They have now formulated bovine-derived SBPs into pellets for performance horses.

The Future of SBPs

Looking at the hypothesized mode of action and studies with other species, researchers such as McClure expect SBPs to benefit the respiratory system as well “We don’t want to push performance horses past their physiological limits,” says McClure. “More research into the potential respiratory benefits of these proteins is needed.”

Although SBP supplements are a relatively new product in the equine field, SBPs have a long history of demonstrated benefits in animal health and nutrition. Additional research is underway to further understand how these molecules affect the immune system and impact the equine athlete during periods of training and stress.  

About the Author

David L. Bledsoe, DVM

A graduate of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, David L. Bledsoe, DVM, has more than twenty years of research and technical services experience in veterinary pharmaceuticals and supplements. He has co-authored numerous journal articles and enjoys communicating about clinical discoveries that benefit animal health.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More