Earlier this week I attended the Rutgers Equine Science Update and got a peek into some of the research they are doing on horses. I have to hand these people a lot of credit for exposing themselves before a research project is complete. They are one of the few groups I know who really do try to be transparent, to use a word-of-the-moment.
The Equine Science Center looks at ways to prevent disease, as opposed to a veterinary hospital, which researches ways of treating and curing a disease. Throughout the years I’ve seen the Center produce some valuable information, and since they discuss the projects while “in progress” it gives the layperson, like myself, a better in-sight as to the complexity of research. A while back they did some research on the efficacy of supplements for joint pain. It took them a year to identify specific blood markers that would accurately predict joint inflammation.
Then they spent considerable time on sourcing specific ingredients in their pure form. After all, you may think it’s the yogurt in your daily dose of strawberry yogurt that makes you break out, when in fact, it may be the strawberries! Same with a supplement, you want to test the active ingredient by itself to eliminate the possibility that it really is the alfalfa meal that is providing all the benefit.
No wonder some medical cures take so long to come about.
So I was intrigued by one of the research studies the Center is sponsoring. Dr. Janet Onishi is actually a plant biologist with a pharmaceutical background. Doesn’t know a thing about horses and I wonder how she came out of the woodwork. How she came upon laminitis as an equine pathology and why it peeked her curiosity remains a mystery to me.
Her interest is in the chronic laminitic situation. Chronic laminitis differs from the acute form in that the horse is never really free form it. The disease continually flares up in the horse’s life. An acute case can turn chronic, but many acute cases are one time events, are treated and the horse remains free from it afterward.
She also approached the question in a different light. The traditional thinking on causes of laminitis involve a carbohydrate overload killing-off bacteria and creating endotoxins, which churn up inflammation with a result of laminitis in the hoof. Endotoxins are a structural component of the wall of gram-negative bacteria and are only released when the bacteria die. What caused a big ‘Hmmm” from Onishi is that injecting the endotoxins directly in the horses blood stream does not create the same scenario. In fact, injecting these endotoxins in the blood stream doesn’t cause any laminitic conditions at all.
Coming from the outside, Onishi had no preconceived notions about the disease and her ponderings gave her wings. Looking at human literature she found evidence that microbes (bacteria) can cross out of the gastro-intestinal track into the lymph system and from there cross into the blood stream and have full access to the body. So she had a thought “What if the microbes were playing a different role in the disease then we imagined? Perhaps it is not the products of the microbes that are causing the problem, but the bacteria itself.”
So she got initiated into the world of animal research protocol, ethics and oversight and is working closely with area veterinarians on a current study. She has some initial findings that are showing there might be merit in her hypothesis. Lamina taken from horses who were euthanized due to causes other than laminitis had no, or very minute, bacteria counts in their hoof lamina. Horses euthanized due to chronic laminitis had significantly high bacterial counts in their hoof lamina.
There are over 77,000 horses suffering from chronic laminitis in the U.S. and I suspect there are an equal number of horse owners who are praying for a way to prevent or control this havoc in the lives of their animals.
The study has just started and even if the results prove the hypothesis, there is still the question of identifying the bacteria, what causes the movement, and how do you affect or interrupt the cascade. But, I find this project replicates one of the purposes of this blog. Talking to people in different mind-sets, careers, and experiences; crossing sectors of science, art, and sociology; going away from horses to bring back to them the best thoughts from other sectors, and not being afraid to say, “I wonder, what would happen if…”