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Equine Grass Sickness Project: A fresh approach to an old disease

Equine Grass Sickness (EGS) is a devastating disease of horses, which has an 80% fatality rate in affected animals. Despite the disease being recognised for over a century, the causes have remained elusive and there are no treatments or vaccines available. The disease was important in the first half of the 20th century as it killed many farm draught horses. Today, it remains a problem for many horse owners and vets and has resulted in the death of many family ponies, performance horses and even racehorses. What is known is that EGS is caused by a toxin which destroys the nerves supplying the gut and effectively causes gut paralysis, so the worst affected cases cannot swallow and cannot defaecate. It is a truly cruel disease for any horse owner to experience.

Earlier this year, as a result of Moredun’s Centenary Fellowship Project, an EGS fellowship was established, funded jointly by the Moredun Foundation and the Equine Grass Sickness Fund. This was an important step forward in EGS research as it now has a dedicated researcher, Dr Kathy Geyer, whose first job was to set up a national biobank of samples from EGS cases and co-grazing controls. The progress of research to find the causal agents of EGS has been hindered by a lack of suitable samples, but horse owners and their vets are now playing a crucial role by submitting samples from affected horses and field controls, along with samples from the horses’ environment, to the new EGS national biobank.

The success of the biobank project in its first season has been remarkable, thanks to the hard work of the EGS team, partner organisations, volunteers and the growing network of equine vets and horse owners, who support the biobank by sending samples in and raising awareness of the project. The biobank, kindly funded by the British Horse Society, is now home to over 1000 biological and environmental samples. We will continue to add to this over the next two seasons, so that researchers have access to sufficient samples to make their research impactful. The support we have had from the horse industry, particularly the British Horse Society; World Horse Welfare, Belwade Farm and Sylvia Ormiston, Stud Manager, HM the Queen’s Balmoral Stud, has been outstanding and very much appreciated. We are also working hard to encourage all vets and horse owners, throughout the UK and beyond, to support our biobank project – all are very welcome!

So what research are we planning for the biobank samples? It is highly likely that the key to this disease lies within these biobank samples, if we can ask the right questions. So we are teaming up, at a Research Crucible event we are running early next year, with expert scientists from a wide variety of disciplines, so that we can keep asking different questions in different ways in order to make a breakthrough. Due to the nature of this fresh approach, by making the project accessible to everyone with an interest in solving this devastating disease, we will continue to expand our networks and initiate multi-disciplinary, collaborative research projects to find answers to this devastating disease and to improve the health and welfare of equines.

For more information, please contact Beth Wells

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