Study To Help Identify Horses At Risk For Catastrophic Injury Moves Into Third Phase - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Study To Help Identify Horses At Risk For Catastrophic Injury Moves Into Third Phase

The Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council, a committee of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, voted Friday to grant additional funding to an ongoing study at the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center into catastrophic injury prevention.

Read more about the science behind the study here.

Dr. Allen Page, researcher at Gluck, presented the EDRC with an update on the first two phases of the three-phase project, which the council has contributed $300,000 to so far.

The goal of the research is to ultimately develop a blood test that will help officials detect horses who may be at elevated risk of a catastrophic injury. While some research has looked at biomarkers for existing injury or disease, this study is looking “upstream” at the messenger RNA responsible for sending instructions that those markers and other proteins be made. The hope is that a horse's blood sample could show warning signs of chronic or building inflammation that is not yet detectable to an observer.

In phase one, Page and fellow researcher Dr. David Horohov gathered blood samples from racetracks in four jurisdictions taken at the time of pre-race TCO2 testing, then examined the samples of horses who ultimately suffered fatal injuries alongside competitors in the same races who did not. The team looked at 21 mRNA markers and found three which were present in different levels in injured versus non-injured horses — IGF-1, MMP-2, and IL1RN.

IGF-1 is known to play a role in bone development and repair, and it was increased in injured horses, suggesting chronic inflammation was present. Matrix metalloproteinase-2, or MMP-2, is thought to assist with tissue repair and fracture remodeling and was also elevated in injured horses. Interestingly, IL1RN is more commonly known as IRAP–a anti-inflammatory material derived from a horse's own blood and given therapeutically by veterinarians to reduce inflammation and aid in healing an injured horse. IRAP was decreased in fatally injured horses, suggesting the body's natural anti-inflammatory process had been disrupted for some reason. Horses with higher levels of IRAP were actually seven times less likely to suffer fatal injuries.

In phase two, Page reported that the team used the university's super computer network to analyze terabytes of data, looking for other significant markers. The data analysis looked at 22,000 different mRNA markers and was able to uncover three new ones which seemed to change significantly depending on a horse's injury status. He could not reveal those markers, since he is hopeful the findings will be published in a peer-reviewed journal, and such publications require key information not be divulged beforehand. He was able to say that two of those mRNA markers were encoded from different chromosomes but appear to play very similar roles in the horse's body. The third has been described in research in humans and horses, but previously the genetic marker's purpose had been unclear.

Page said a blood test looking at all six mRNA markers – the three from phase one of the project, and the three new ones – is now correct 80 percent of the time when trying to identify a horse that will have an injury. Considering that research from pathologists indicates about 90 percent of fatal musculoskeletal breakdowns show signs of chronic damage on necropsy, Page thinks that's a pretty good success rate for the blood test.

“I'm starting to become part of the camp that thinks we can identify a large portion of the horses that may be at risk for a catastrophic injury, but we may not be able to identify all of them,” said Page. “We're certainly making some headway and I'd argue that it's substantially better than anything out there that we have now to detect horses at risk for injury.”

Phase three of the project will involve 15,000 new samples pulled from horses in Southern California in an attempt to validate the work identifying the six mRNA markers. Page does not think the results should be significantly impacted by the fact they'll be coming from a different racing circuit than the phase one samples, and that the possibility the team could end up sampling the same horses multiple times will give them even better opportunities to see how inflammation may change in an individual over time.

When asked about the practical applications of the test on Friday, Page said that currently it takes about 24 to 48 hours to get results, so its use as a screening tool pre-race would need to take that into account. With time and improved testing methods however, it is possible a racetrack could someday analyze the samples more rapidly on-site.

The EDRC approved $40,000 to help fund the project's third and final phase. Industry stakeholders, including Keeneland, The Stronach Group, and the New York Racing Association have already committed to contributing to the project.

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