The New Frontier: Part 3

New genome technology provides clues to what causes certain diseases in horses.

This is the third part in a four-part series. Need to review Part 1 or Part 2?

Dr. N. Edward Robinson, director of the equine pulmonary laboratory at Michigan State University, is using knowledge gained from the genome project to investigate airway disease.

Robinson says one of the exciting features of the technology is that the genome-wide approach often provides clues to what is causing the disease.

“Things that you may never have thought of,” he says. “We’re all focused very much in the heaves world on

the environment and what it does to the airways, and we think of genes that might be involved. But maybe there’s something we never though of, something in the brain to do with nerve growth, or something like that. So we’re getting clues from mechanisms of disease from the genome as well.”

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Dr. Samantha Brooks, associate professor of veterinary medicine at Cornell University, made a breakthrough discovery in her pursuit of the sabino and tobiano color markers when she was Dr. Ernest Bailey’s postdoctoral student at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Brooks found that the genes that had an influence on coat color also had an influence on mast cells in the immune system.

“Mast cells probably are implicated in laminitis,” Dr. Bailey said. “So she started a project studying laminitis in horses by looking at the expression of genes in this set of cells. This is something that wouldn’t have even been thinkable 20 years or even 10 years ago, and that’s only because we have the genomics that are there.”

Dr. James Michelson, professor of veterinary biosciences at the University of Minnesota, and his colleague, Dr. Stephanie Valberg, have identified the genetic basis for the muscle diseases HYPP, PSSM and GBED. Dr. Michelson says a major benefit of the equine genome map is that the technology has the ability to speed up research.

He says the first research to identify genetic markers for PSSM, a disease that causes abnormal sugar storage in muscles that makes a horse suffer from severe muscle cramping, took “many, many years to complete” because it was done without benefit of the genome map. Dr. Michelson expects current research into a newly discovered second form of PSSM will progress much more rapidly.

“That should allow the development of a DNA-based test to determine susceptibility for this particular form of this disease,” he says. “And it could be used by veterinarians to diagnose the problem in horses that are already walking around or it can be used by breeders to try to control propagation of a disease gene in families and produce horses that don’t carry these diseases.”

Stay tuned for the final part of this four-part series.

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