Birth of special foal to be webcast live from university


The birth of a special foal is to be webcast live by the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center.

My Special Girl’s pregnancy resulted from an advanced reproductive technique known as intracytoplasmic sperm injection, known as ICSI, which involves injecting a single sperm into a mature egg.

My Special Girl is due to give birth in mid-March. Photos: New Bolton Center
My Special Girl is due to give birth in mid-March. Photos: New Bolton Center

This ICSI embryo was transferred to New Bolton Center’s surrogate mare, My Special Girl.

My Special Girl’s pregnancy represents the first for Penn Vet using the ICSI procedure, performed as part of ongoing reproductive research at the Hofmann Center.

The ultrasound image confirming its success was taken on April 19, when the embryo was about 12 days old.

“We were very excited. There was yelling. We were calling everyone to come to see,” said Dr Regina Turner, associate Professor of Large Animal Reproduction at New Bolton’s Hofmann Center for Reproduction and Behavior.

“The pregnancy was in its very early stages, but it looked perfectly normal, and it was just the right size, in the right place.”

The New Bolton Center has since decided to give people the opportunity to monitor My Special Girl before the arrival of her special foal, and witness the live birth via a “Foal Cam”.

The live webcast will be available on the Penn Vet website at beginning on February 26. My Special Girl is due to foal in mid-March.

“We hope that sharing the birth of this foal will give the world a window into New Bolton Center, and showcase our caring clinicians and staff, and our expertise in reproduction and neonatal intensive care,” said Corinne Sweeney, DVM, Associate Dean of New Bolton Center.

Although My Special Girl is not expected to have problems delivering her baby, the mare will deliver the foal in the Graham French Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at New Bolton Center.

The ultrasound that confirmed the pregnancy.
The ultrasound that confirmed the pregnancy.

The unit is designed to accommodate the needs of mares at increased risk for complications and critically ill neonatal patients. Medical staff are on site to monitor the mares 24 hours a day.

“We don’t anticipate any problems with My Special Girl’s delivery,” Turner said. “But in the unlikely event that there is a problem, it is critical that we have people on site so that we can intervene very quickly.

“The foaling will happen very quickly once it starts,” Turner said, noting that the active stage of a mare’s labor typically is less than 30 minutes, sometimes less, and usually in the middle of the night.

My Special Girl, an 11-year-old thoroughbred, was donated to New Bolton Center’s herd of horses used for teaching veterinary students.

“Her main role in life is to allow our fourth-year veterinary students to learn how to examine a mare’s reproductive tract and to learn how to manage equine breeding,” Turner said. “We knew she was a fertile mare and so she was a great choice for this special pregnancy.”

The egg for the foal came from a thoroughbred-Cleveland Bay cross mare. The sperm was from frozen semen from a long-deceased thoroughbred-quarter horse cross stallion that was part of the Hofmann Center’s teaching program.

The foal carried by My Special Girl will be adopted by Dr Rose Nolen-Walston, New Bolton Center’s Assistant Professor of Medicine, who lives on a nearby farm.

Lisa Fergusson of Cochranville, Pennsylvania, once on Canada’s Olympic Eventing team, will be the foal’s trainer when it is ready to begin its athletic career.

The crucial phase in the ICIS procedure.
The crucial phase in the ICIS procedure.

They hope the foal will compete in eventing – a discpline that requires tremendous athleticism from the horse, and a deep trust between horse and rider.

“The bloodlines make it possible for this foal to be a terrific sport horse,” Nolen-Walston said. “We would love this foal to compete at the Plantation Field Horse Trials in five or six years.”

The embryo was created in early April using the ICSI procedure.

The complex process involved injection of a single sperm cell into a mature egg, or oocyte, using a specialized, high-powered microscope with tiny injection pipettes attached to a micromanipulator with joystick-like controls.
The fertilized egg was cultured for a few days in an incubator until the embryo was ready to be transferred to the mare on April 15.

The procedure was performed by Adrian Leu, a former member of Penn Vet’s Animal Biology department. He used a microscope that has a “piezo” tool, which drills into the outer layer of the egg, minimizing trauma to the egg at the time of sperm injection.

Now Penn Medicine’s Matthew VerMilyea, director of the IVF and Andrology Laboratories at Penn Medicine, is performing ICSI for the Hofmann Center.

ICSI is a common procedure in human medicine that revolutionized the treatment of male infertility. VerMilyea is using a microscope with laser technology, used for humans but rarely used in horses.

“It is exciting,” said VerMilyea, who is performing the ICSI procedure on several equine eggs provided by Hofmann this year.

“It is great to be able to apply the tools and skills that we commonly use in treating human infertility, and make slight adjustments that allow us to cross over into the animal world.”

VerMilyea is still perfecting the use of the laser technology on the horse eggs. “Although similar in size to human eggs, horse oocytes are much darker in color and more difficult to visualize,” he said, noting that they also are more elastic, which makes the procedure more challenging.

Because only one sperm is needed, ICSI has great potential for stallions with low numbers of sperm, or poor sperm quality, or for use of frozen sperm from deceased stallions to carry on a legacy.

The procedure also can be used for mares who cannot get pregnant or carry their offspring themselves in the conventional manner, as all the donor mare needs to do is produce an egg.

Equine ICSI was pioneered by Colorado State and Texas A&M universities. The procedure has recently become available commercially at a limited number of facilities around the US. However, the cost to set up a successful ICSI program is high, due to the advanced equipment required to create the pregnancies, and the high level of expertise required to carry out the procedures.

Penn Vet is positioning itself to provide this service.

“My Special Girl’s pregnancy is the first of what we hope will be many ICSI pregnancies created right here at Penn,” Turner said. The work is being funded by an endowment left by the Hofmann family for the improvement of the Hofmann Center and expansion of its programs.

Reporting: Louisa Shepard

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