KHRC Funds Catastrophic Injury Study at UK Gluck Center

By Jenny Evans

 

LEXINGTON, Ky., (Aug. 17, 2018) – The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission recently voted unanimously to fund a project at the University of Kentucky Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center examining inflammatory and anti-inflammatory markers as early indicators for potential catastrophic (life-ending) injury in racehorses.

The occurrence of injuries in horses and jockeys during training and racing is a significant economic and welfare concern for the Thoroughbred industry. While there has been increased interest in the development of techniques to identify individual horses at risk for injury, these approaches have not been widely adopted.

“We have a method to detect inflammation in horses and are proposing to determine its utility in the early detection of an impending catastrophic injury,” said Allen Page, principal investigator and scientist/veterinarian at the Gluck Equine Research Center.

Scientists have made multiple attempts to use biomarkers as indicators of injury, but the data thus far has shown this isn’t reliable. Instead, researchers will rely on measuring mRNA, or the precursors to proteins, from circulating white blood cells.

“Our theory is that these cells pass by areas of bone or soft-tissue damage, which are activated by the damage, and begin producing inflammatory or anti-inflammatory mRNA, which we then measure,” Page explained. “Based on this, our hypothesis for the study is that those Thoroughbred racehorses that experience a catastrophic injury while racing will have evidence of increased inflammation when compared to non-injured horses.”

Researchers in the two-year, $164,488 study, titled “Inflammation in Catastrophically Injured Thoroughbreds,” have been collecting samples since January with the help of multiple state and local racing jurisdictions. Page recently spoke with regulatory racing veterinarians to encourage additional participation in the study, as the ultimate goal is to sample 150 catastrophically injured horses, as well as approximately 1,000 non-injured horses, from across North America.

“By using non-injured horses from the same race, as well as horses in the general racing population, we anticipate identifying patterns of inflammation which may be indicative of a specific injury type,” said David Horohov, co-principal investigator, Gluck Equine Research Center director and Department of Veterinary Science chair. “This may then be of use in the future to help identify horses that need additional examination before a race.”

Page said, while there has been a significant amount of work in the past two decades to take large amounts of data and create models for determining risk factors for racehorse injuries, those models are not being used on a widespread basis yet.

“It’s exciting to think that a single blood sample may be all we need to help identify an individual at-risk horse as we work with the racing industry to further improve the safety and welfare of these incredible athletes,” Page said.

The mission of the Gluck Center, a UK Ag Equine program in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, is scientific discovery, education and dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of the health and well-being of horses. The Gluck Center faculty conducts equine research in seven targeted areas: genetics and genomics, immunology, infectious diseases, musculoskeletal science, parasitology, pharmacology/toxicology and reproductive health. Their continuing efforts build upon a tradition of excellence in equine research dating back to 1915. For more information on the Gluck Center, visit http://gluck.ca.uky.edu.

 

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Study Of Inflammatory Markers Leaves Researchers With More Questions About Predicting Racehorse Injury

by | 09.14.2017 | 6:59pm

For years now, researchers have been searching for some kind of agent detectable in horses’ blood to warn them of an impending injury. Research presented by Dr. David Horohov of the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky at a recent Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council meeting shows the quest has continued to be a challenging one.

“The theory has been advanced that in fact, visible injury is a result of chronic accumulation of damage that exceeds the healing capacity of the tissue. And indeed, the whole process of conditioning an animal is actually one of breaking down and rebuilding tissue so that it’s stronger,” said Horohov. “If we could identify techniques to tell when that process has become imbalanced, where there is weakness rather than strength, we could begin identifying horses in advance.”

Initially, Horohov said scientists wanted to look for cytokines – biological message-carriers – associated with damage to bone and cartilage. This proved challenging because bones are constantly in a cycle of breaking down and building up in response to exercise. It is the remodeling process that prepares an equine (or human) skeleton to hold up to future impacts, based on past experience. This approach also did not seem sensitive enough and might miss other types of stress in the body, so Horohov set out to study the behavior of cytokines related to inflammation.

These messengers would be aware the body was recruiting inflammatory cells to deal with an injury but would not be involved in the inflammatory process themselves. Theoretically, he thought, low levels of inflammatory cytokines should indicate some degree of normal response to training, while high amounts might be a sign the body was not adjusting to the stress of training, increasing the likelihood of an accident.

Between 2015 and 2016, Horohov and his team studied two groups with a total of 130 horses over two years: one group, scattered across different trainers, at Keeneland‘s synthetic training track, and another group on a lighter workout program (working on turf once per week) on a nearby farm. The results were somewhat surprising.

Immediately after exercise, horses typically have an increase in inflammatory biomarkers, which come back down over time and usually go below their original level – thought to be a sign the horses’ tissues were adjusting to exercise. Horohov’s group did find a difference between the horses at the track and those trained on the farm – over time, horses training on the track saw their base level inflammatory index increase, rather than decrease.

“To us, this raises more questions than it answers,” he said.

Horohov said it was impossible to tell whether the increase in inflammatory index was a sign of an increased risk for injury, or if it was simply a normal response to training. Both groups of horses had just begun the process of breezing.

Horohov also hopes in the future, the study of inflammatory cytokines could be finessed to predict specific types of injuries.

Besides the somewhat puzzling results, studies like this one are challenging because in order to get a group of horses in a true racetrack setting, scientists must give up control of the horses’ environments. Across the group of 130 horses studied, many were with different trainers and different feeding programs (including different supplements); those on the farm were getting turnout, while those at the track were not. It’s difficult to draw broad conclusions when variables like these place horses in mini sub-groups.

“One of the problems, too, about sampling horses is they leave,” said Horohov. “You get something you’re really interested in, you go back and they’re not there anymore.”

Horohov estimated about 25 percent of horses came up with some kind of lameness during the study period, but they were split between so many different trainers and programs it was impossible to say with certainty whether their cytokine levels rose before their lamenesses, or when.

From here, Horohov’s team hopes to expand the study to try to minimize some of these variables and to see whether an exaggerated inflammatory response does, indeed, preempt injuries.

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