Posts Tagged ‘Rutgers Equine Science Center’

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.

Janet Onishi, Mike Fannell, Dr. Michael Fugaro

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…”

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Just a reminder that elections are coming; vote horse friendly

Just a reminder that elections are coming; vote horse friendly

In the past 40+ years we have learned an awful lot about horses’ health. Colic surgery, which was all but unheard of, has pretty high success rate numbers. Wounds have better potions, lotions, and dressings. There are many newer and more effective vaccines and we have made Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA, what the Coggins test is for) a side issue instead of the dominant state it held in the ‘40s.

But we still don’t know a lot, and what’s amazing, when you listen to us talk, is that we don’t know we don’t know! The snake oil is still out there and out there with endorsements, official looking labels and massive amounts of shelf space.

I was reminded of all this recently at a Rutgers Equine Science Center meeting. Rutgers is not a veterinary college, but is involved in a large number of equine studies. Their aim is prevention rather than cure and they have done a lot of research on performance enhancing drugs and nutrition.

What don’t we know about what we do? Lasix is a good example. The race industry sought a cure for bleeding out the nose during a race. Blood dripping out the nose or wandering around the lungs gets in the way of air-flow and you need every hemoglobin molecule to deliver oxygen during a race. Lasix became the miracle cure. But there was still evidence of bleeding.

Dr. Kenneth McKeever of the Rutgers Equine Science Center

Dr. Kenneth McKeever of the Rutgers Equine Science Center

Enter Dr. Kenneth McKeever, who is massively tall, you know when he has entered a room. He and the Rutgers Equine Science Center started doing treadmill studies on how Lasix works. Turns out it doesn’t harm the horse –– doesn’t stop the bleeding either. But it does act as a diuretic, dropping pounds of water before a race so the horse runs lighter and faster. Voila! Now everyone uses lasix to make a faster running horse, or you could just watch the animal’s water consumption pre-race.But people still think Lasix stops bleeding.

The evidence for clenbuterol and albuterol was different. The medication was found (being used off label) to build a horse faster, so a yearling would look like a 2-year-old and fetch a better asking price. McKeever again researched the evidence. He found that indeed it does build a bigger horse, with a faulty heart. So while that horse looks like a prime athlete its performance will suffer and the very real possibility of a heart attack looms.

Now let’s look at those shelves of nutraceuticles and advertisements from feed producers. NRC 6th editionLet’s step into the world of the National Research Council. They are the defining body of nutrition requirements for humans and animals in the U.S. and many other countries. All the information on the foods in your refrigerator is based on the NRC requirements. The  equine folks over there (all with extensive initials after their names) review the world-wide base of scientific research. They look at the quality of the research, size of study and consistency among results. They’re good at what they do. So it was a wake-up call in March of 2008 when I attended a conference addressing the most recent revisions to the equine recommendations. Dr. Laurie Lawrence, chair of the project, started by saying how little they actually know about the equine’s metabolism and use of nutrients compared to other livestock.

The reason is simple; we don’t feed and euthanize horses to study nutritional effects. It is a moral taboo. Despite the outcry of horses used for human consumption in other parts of the world, it would appear it is not a significant dietary mainstay, because worldwide there is a dearth of information on nutritional effects on a horse.

Progress is being made. Clever scientists and better imaging equipment are allowing peaks into blood markers and invisible organs. But it is still expensive to run trials on horses because it is expensive to keep horses. So progress is slow. When engaged in “What do you feed” talks, it always makes me stop and ask “how do we know this.” The answer is usually because the trainer, who is on the Olympic list, or the feed supplier said so. Alas, thhey have no initials behind their name. And vet schools are just now catching up on the nutrition angle, but they can’t teach what isn’t known.

If we really want the scoopy on that new feed or additive it is worth a call to an equine nutritionist associated with a university or the government. Ask them if research has been done on the component in question. If the answer is no, you may still decide to use the product, no doesn’t always mean bad, just that we have no idea how the component affects the animal. Sometimes, though, no can mean danger – you get to decide.

But at least you will be able to smile and listen to others talk and know what we don’t know.

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