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Equine Research

UK serves Kentuckians & the horse industry

The horse is an undeniable emblem of the culture and history of Central Kentucky. Kentucky’s
signature equine industry contributes $4 billion annually to the economy and generates 80,000 to 100,000 jobs. Since 1987, the University of Kentucky’s Maxwell H. Gluck Equine
Research Center has been the nexus for scientific discovery, education and outreach on equine health. The Gluck Center, part of the UK College of Agriculture’s Department of Veterinary Science, has had an international impact on equine research. Vet Science faculty collaborate on research projects with faculty in the UK colleges of agriculture and medicine, with vets in Central Kentucky and scientists around the world. The Gluck Center has:

  • Provided leadership in the sequencing of the complete horse genome and structural characterization of horse genes

  • Developed six major vaccines to protect against strangles, equine influenza, equine rhinopneumonitis, equine viral arteritis, and shaker foal syndrome and validated the efficacy of the equine rotavirus vaccine

  • Developed diagnostic tests for contagious equine metritis, Tyzzer’s disease, equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy, strangles, and equine viral arteritis

  • Developed the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test. Based on technology from UK researchers David Watt, Tom Tobin and Daniel Tai, the test detects more than 100 performance enhancing drugs in horses. These researchers formed WTT, one of UK’s first successful spin-off companies. Neogen, an international food and animal safety corporation, acquired WTT in 1991. Since then, Neogen has returned $1.9 million in royalties to UK.


Unlocking the equine genetic code

Genes are destiny. DNA holds the secret to life. “These are phrases that leap to people’s minds when you talk about genetics,” says Ernest Bailey, an immunogenetics researcher and professor at the UK Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center. “While the human genome project has taught us, unfortunately, that there aren’t simple fixes for cancer or heart disease lurking inside our genetic code, the reality is that gene sequencing is to this century what vaccines and antibiotics were to the 20th century.”

Bailey’s genomics work began in 1994, when he and a group of equine scientists began to discuss their mutual interest in creating a genome map to help them battle equine diseases. With support from the Morris Animal Foundation and the Dorothy Russell Havemeyer Foundation, 70 international scientists came to Lexington in 1995 to start to map the 32 pairs of chromosomes in the horse genome. Each chromosome is a long chain of DNA. The horse genome contains 20,000 genes—pieces of DNA which code for proteins and enzymes.

“The human genome project revealed that only 3 percent of DNA makes genes. A whopping 97 percent of DNA does not code for proteins, but this so-called ‘junk’ has all of the transcribed messages that executed the design. That 97 percent is where the action is,” Bailey says with a smile.

“By 2004 we had our gene map, we could identify point-for-point where the genes for the horse existed, and we could even use the human genome to predict the sequence of the horse genes, but we could not reliably predict the activity of horse genes based on the human sequence. We needed to know what was in that 97 percent of miscellaneous DNA.”

In 2005, when the international group of scientists articulated the “whole horse genome” as their goal, it seemed like a pipedream. Bailey explains that the human genome project cost $3 billion, the chicken genome was $60 million, and the cattle genome was $50 million. “There just isn’t that kind of money for an animal we don’t breed to eat,” he says. But in 2005 the Broad Institute in Boston, where the human genome sequencing took place, was looking for another species to sequence, and, because of the diseases Bailey and his group were wanting to study, the horse was selected. The equine genome was sequenced in 2006, and by 2007 two assemblies were completed. Bailey adds that a computer algorithm fits the corresponding pieces of DNA together to make an assembly.

The horse genome cost an estimated $15 million, and this newfound genetic treasure trove is online for scientists all over the world to use. Anticipating the next question, Bailey says: “How do scientists use genetics to study diseases? Three ways: you can develop a test for a simple genetic defect, you can study changes in gene expression, and you can study complex diseases that are a combination of genetic and environmental factors.”

Thanks to this project, scientists at the Gluck Center have developed a number of simple tests for genetic defects, like mutations that cause dwarfism in miniature horses and a skin-sloughing disease in saddlebreds. But Bailey says the real promise of the horse genome is in studying gene expression. “Everything from what you feed a horse to how much it exercises changes gene expression. We’ve never had a tool before that allowed us to look at those changes. With complex diseases, like laminitis—a hoof inflammation that ends racing careers—and a number of respiratory conditions, the genome will help us understand the underlying causes and lead to better management practices. Genetics might help us cure some things, but it will absolutely help us develop more effective treatments for the most complex and devastating equine diseases.”

—Alicia P. Gregory

UK’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory

Construction crews have been hard at work at the corner of Newtown Pike and Citation Boulevard with the rapid expansion of the University of Kentucky’s UK Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL)—formerly the Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center. Funded by a state appropriation, the $28.5 million expansion will double the size of the existing facility, which underscores the importance of protecting the health of Kentucky’s animals—a charge the center has had since its creation.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture established the laboratory in the early 1970s as a way to quickly diagnose disease outbreaks in farm animals. Now operated by the University of Kentucky, VDL offers tests to help veterinarians diagnose and treat diseases. Partnering with the state veterinarian’s office, VDL’s new statewide Animal Health Information Management System can track local disease patterns and warn farm managers and veterinarians of emerging epidemics.

The laboratory also identifies disease outbreaks by conducting necropsies—animal autopsies—on livestock, companion, and wild animals. Director Craig Carter emphasizes that the VDL is a “life lab”: “Everything we do is to save lives. The information gained from the loss of one animal might save 10 or 20 or 100.” The center conducts the most equine necropsies in the world due to its proximity to Central Kentucky’s horse farms. The VDL handles 3,000 necropsies and 60,000 clinical cases per year. The American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians recently awarded the lab national accreditation, “a gold star” in Carter’s words, for its testing procedures for all species.

VDL faculty members specialize in pathology, clinical pathology, bacteriology, molecular biology, serology, clinical toxicology, virology, and epidemiology. The lab’s current research projects include studies on wobbler syndrome, contracted foal syndrome, contagious equine metritis, Lawsonia intracellularis, and uterine artery rupture.

Engineering horse & rider safety

“Athletes shouldn’t die if they make one small mistake.” This phrase was uttered over and over at the press conferences following the death of Olympic luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in Vancouver last winter. In the weeks after this tragic incident, the speed of the course, the height of the walls and the protective systems were much discussed, emphasizing the responsibility of sports course designers to provide the safest competition environment possible. A research team at UK led
by Suzanne Smith is delving into what she calls the “emerging specialty” of sport-safety engineering.

Smith, a mechanical engineer who studies motion, says, “There are direct parallels in other sports, including automotive racing and the equestrian sport of eventing.” Eventing, an Olympic sport which will be featured at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, is the triathlon of equestrian sports, including dressage, cross country and stadium jumping.

To put the risk of injury during the cross country phase in perspective, Smith cites some statistics. If a horse stops suddenly and the rider falls off, there’s a 2 percent chance of injury. If the horse falls and the rider falls, there’s a 7 percent chance the rider will be seriously injured. “But if the horse summersaults— catches its front legs on a jump and flips over, sometimes landing on the rider—there’s more than a 30 percent chance the rider will be seriously injured or killed.” These so-called “rotational falls” are rare, but devastating. And they happen when the horse contacts something that’s immovable, and cross country features a wide range of immovable objects, like fences, gates and walls.

A decade ago British engineers developed the “frangible pin” safety system. These break-away pins allow part or all of the jump to collapse if hit with enough impact. While these pins have been widely implemented, they don’t address the safety of other kinds of jumps—that’s where Smith comes in. With funding from the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the U.S. Eventing Association, a dozen UK faculty and students from mechanical, materials, biosystems and agricultural engineering, and construction management are working together to develop new standards and evaluate new devices to improve eventing safety.

The UK team is studying the physics involved through motion tracking (using high-speed cameras that capture a thousand frames per second) to test new safety devices. The team is simulating the force of a horse striking a jump with a lab sledgehammer—the kind civil engineers use to test bridges. “We can measure the amount of force required to activate a safety device,” Smith explains. “In cross country, horses contact the obstacles 25 percent of the time, and they hit hard. With another horse and rider coming up to that obstacle in two to four minutes, the device has to be reset. We’re trying to evaluate the difference between a ‘regular’ hard hoof strike and one that precedes a catastrophic accident to fine tune new devices.”

At the 2010 Lexington Rolex Three-Day Event, one of the five four-star events worldwide, the UK team premiered a wood-foam composite fence they developed. “It has the traditional look of wood but has a foam center, so it gives and breaks at a certain force,” Smith explains. “This composite was used in a practice fence in the warm-up area at the Rolex.

“By testing our designs, and designs that have been developed all over the world, we can help the sport establish standards for safety devices, and advise course builders on the right way to implement these devices to save the lives of riders and horses.”

—Alicia P. Gregory

Ball named equine reproduction endowed chair

Barry A. Ball, DVM, PhD, a professor at the University of California, Davis, has accepted the position of the Albert G. Clay Endowed Chair in Equine Reproduction at the University of Kentucky’s Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center. Ball will join the UK Department of Veterinary Science as a faculty member in December 2010.

“The appointment of Dr. Barry Ball to the Albert G. Clay Endowed Chair in Equine Reproduction will help us form a critical mass of researchers in the field of equine reproduction at the Gluck Equine Research Center,” says Mats Troedsson, chair of UK’s Department of Veterinary Science and director of the Gluck Center. “Dr. Ball’s interest, expertise, and research credentials make him a good fit within our group and provide a valuable addition to the horse industry in Kentucky. We are very fortunate to have the support of the Clay family to allow us to recruit internationally recognized researchers like Dr. Ball to the Gluck Center.”

Ball is currently the John P. Hughes Endowed Chair in Equine Reproduction at UC Davis. Ball received his doctorate in veterinary medicine from Cornell University, his doctor in veterinary medicine degree from the University of Georgia, and did his undergraduate studies in animal science at Virginia Tech. In 1987 he received his board certification as a diplomate in the American College of Theriogenologists, a branch of veterinary medicine concerned with reproduction. He holds veterinary licenses in North Carolina and California. Ball has been a faculty member at UC Davis since 1996.

At UC Davis, Ball’s research in equine reproduction emphasizes gamete biology, fertilization, embryonicdevelopment, embryonic loss, and endocrinology. Ball also served as the vice-chair in the department of population health and reproduction from 2005-2006.

The focus of the Clay Chair is to develop a research program that leads to the advancement of knowledge and understanding of equine reproduction as related to biology, physiology, endocrinology, pathology, or immunology.

“I am deeply grateful for the support of three generations of the Clay family, not just for helping us establish this endowment, but for the leadership they have provided to the University and to Kentucky agriculture over so many years,” says Scott Smith, dean of UK’s College of Agriculture.

Prior to Ball’s position at UC Davis, he was at Cornell University from 1987-1996, first as an assistant professor of theriogenology and then an associate professor of theriogenology; a graduate research assistant at Cornell from 1984-1987; resident in reproduction at the University of Florida, clinical theriogenology, from 1982-1984; and a veterinarian at Washington County Veterinary Service, a bovine and equine practice in Abingdon, Va., from 1981-1982.

“Barry Ball is a well-respected scientist and researcher. He has contributed significantly to the investigation and understanding of reproductive questions in both the mare and the stallion,” says Walter Zent, Gluck Equine Research Foundation chair and veterinarian at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington. “Barry is not only a world-class researcher but also an excellent clinician.

“His contributions to the equine industry in Kentucky will be considerable, and he will add greatly to the team of researchers in reproduction that are already assembled at the Gluck Center. He is a researcher of the stature that the Clay Chair must attract in order to fulfill the lofty visions of the donors.”

Ball has published more than 100 scientific research papers. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, American College of Theriogenologists, Society of Theriogenology, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Ball also has international research interests in Australia, New Zealand, South America, and Europe.

—Jenny Blandford, Gluck Equine Research Foundation assistant. This article first appeared in the Bluegrass Equine Digest.

$150,000 USDA Grant Bolsters Lysine Study

Lysine is one of the 20 amino acids essential to horses, but often is the most deficient in their diets due to inadequate levels in commonly fed cereal grains. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which form muscle, enzymes, and hormones throughout the body. Horses can only use them if all essential amino acids are present at sufficient levels. If one amino acid, such as lysine, is deficient, the horse’s body will use it up and convert the excess of the remaining amino acids into carbon dioxide, which is exhaled, and to urea, which is excreted in the urine.

Kristine Urschel, an assistant professor in animal and food sciences for the UK College of Agriculture, was awarded a $150,000 grant from the USDA’s Agricultural and Food Research Initiative and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study lysine requirements in horses.

Nancy Cox, UK College of Agriculture associate dean for research in and Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station director, says receiving USDA funds is a big achievement for two reasons: “One, this program is so competitive that few researchers land funding on the first try. Also, it is much harder to secure funding for equine research, since more than 90 percent of USDA animal research is on food animals.”

Adequate levels of lysine are particularly critical for young horses, since they require more protein than adults to support their rapid growth rates. Urschel says her study will be the first to assess exactly what amount of lysine is ideal. “Hopefully, it will be a starting point for determining other amino acid requirements in the diet,” says Urschel, who came to UK in August 2008 after completing her bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Alberta, Canada, and postdoc research at Virginia Tech.

Her study will also be the first of its kind to use the Indicator Amino Acid Oxidation (IAAO) technique for determining amino acid requirements in horses. Scientists use this technique to measure the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the breakdown of an alternate amino acid. Urschel will be able to determine the optimal amount of lysine when she detects the least amount of carbon dioxide released from overall amino acid breakdown.

Urschel believes the potential applications of the study made her project appealing to the USDA review committee.

“Some techniques such as IAAO haven’t been used to measure lysine in horses, but the same techniques are cutting-edge in other species,” Urschel says. “I think this group at the USDA recognized that we don’t know a lot about horses’ amino acid and protein requirements, but it’s important that we do.

“Although amino acid requirements can be met by simply feeding high levels of total protein, this is not a desirable approach,” she says, adding that feeding excess protein leads to inefficient digestion and excretion of nitrogen, which can negatively impact the environment.

Urschel hopes the study results will help people feed their horses of all ages more efficiently to maximize growth and minimize nutrient waste.

—Natalie Voss is a UK equine communications intern. This article first appeared in the Bluegrass Equine Digest.

New ELISA Test for EPM Developed at Gluck

Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM) is one of the most treatable neurological diseases of horses and is caused by Sarcocystis neurona. This parasite penetrates the central nervous system, producing varying levels of neurological disease. Because S. neurona can locate anywhere in the brain and spinal cord, the disease can mimic many neurological conditions, and diagnosis can be challenging.

Diagnostic assays for EPM developed under the leadership of Daniel Howe, a molecular parasitologist at the University of Kentucky Gluck Equine Research Center, are now available exclusively at Equine Diagnostic Solutions LLC (EDS).

The new diagnostic tests are quantitative enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs) based on multiple immunogenic proteins located on the surface of the S. neurona parasite. Infected horses produce a vigorous antibody response to these parasite proteins, which can be accurately measured with the ELISAs.
“Recent studies have demonstrated the clinical utility of the new tests for the accurate diagnosis of EPM,” Howe says. “Specifically, by using the ELISAs to compare the amount of antibody present in the serum versus the cerebrospinal fluid of a horse, it is now possible to achieve a much more reliable assessment of whether the horse is suffering from EPM.”

Howe joined the faculty at the Gluck Center in 1999 and heads a research program focused on the molecular biology of S. neurona. The research leading to the development of these assays was made possible by funds to Howe’s laboratory from the Amerman Family Equine Research Endowment.

The development and validation of the diagnostic assays was a collaborative effort between Howe and Michelle Yeargan (research specialist at the Gluck Center), Martin Furr (the Adelaide C. Riggs chair in equine medicine at Virginia Tech), Steve Reed (a world-renowned expert in equine neurological diseases at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington) and Jennifer Morrow and Amy Graves at EDS.

The exclusive rights to the second-generation diagnostic tests for EPM were obtained by EDS in January. EDS, which opened in August 2009, is a diagnostics laboratory located at the University of Kentucky’s Coldstream Research Campus. It was opened by Morrow and Graves, who were previously the principal scientists of Equine Biodiagnostics Inc. (EBI), which was founded in 1996 through Kentucky Technologies Inc. (KTI) and based on groundbreaking EPM research by David Granstrom, Howe’s predecessor at the Gluck Center.

For information on Howe’s laboratory, visit and for information on EDS, visit

—Daniel Howe, PhD, is a molecular parasitologist at the Gluck Equine Research Center. Jenny Blandford is the Gluck Equine Research Foundation assistant. This article first appeared in the Bluegrass Equine Digest.

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Gluck Center

Since 1987, the University of Kentucky’s Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center has been the nexus for scientific discovery, education and outreach on equine health.

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horse chromosomes

The horse genome has 32 pairs of chromosomes. Each chromosome is a long chain of DNA. The horse genome contains 20,000 genes—pieces of DNA which code for proteins and enzymes.

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Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center

Funded by a state appropriation, the $28.5 million expansion will double the size of the existing Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory on the corner of Newtown Pike and Citation Boulevard in Lexington.

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composite fence

At the 2010 Lexington Rolex Three-Day Event, one of the five four-star events worldwide, the UK team premiered a wood-foam composite fence they developed. “It has the traditional look of wood but has a foam center, so it gives and breaks at a certain force,” Suzanne Smith explains. “This composite was used in a practice fence in the warm-up area at the Rolex."

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Suzanne Smith

Suzanne Smith, a mechanical engineer who studies motion, is studying the physics involved in devastating summersault accidents in the equestrian sport of cross country.

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