Against the odds: ‘Miracle’ IVF foal born in US

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Lord Nelson - aka PICSI - soon after birth at UC Davis.
Lord Nelson – aka PICSI – soon after birth at UC Davis.

Leading veterinary school UC Davis has welcomed its first foal born by in-vitro fertilisation with the birth of a very special colt who has been two decades in the planning.

The foal’s birth at midnight on a warm summer evening in the barns at the UC Davis veterinary hospital was watched over by Dr Bruce Christensen, chief of the hospital’s Equine Reproduction Service.

The colt was born thanks to the use of intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) – a technique of “bypassing” standard IVF by injecting a sperm directly into the egg.

But the youngster’s origins go back almost a quarter of a century.

While raising a teenage daughter more than 20 years ago, Carol Alonso took up dressage riding with her daughter. Now 73, Alonso still rides competitively and still competes with the horse she bought 22 years ago – El Gavilan, an Andalusian. Alonso always wanted a Spanish horse, and searched far and wide to find El Gavilan, whose pedigree is 600 years long. She reluctantly had him gelded shortly after buying him, but had the foresight to freeze some of his semen in hopes of one day finding just the right mare to match his prowess.

Kaikoura with Lord Nelson, the foal by El Gavilan and from Zholani.
Kaikoura with Lord Nelson, the foal by El Gavilan and from Zholani.

At 24, El Gavilan is still going strong so Alonso felt it was finally time to find a Spanish mare to breed to him. Alonso wanted a mare that could compete in the upper levels of dressage, as El Gavilan was able to accomplish. She found that match to be a tall order. Having literally searched the world over, Alonso decided to curtail her expectations a bit, and found a non-Spanish mare in Illinois that she thought would be a good match. The mare, Zholani, was half thoroughbred and half shire.

Alonso started showing Zholani and had great success with her. She knew she had finally found the right match for El Gavilan so she met with the equine reproduction specialists at UC Davis. After a few unsuccessful attempts of artificial insemination on Zholani, Dr. Christensen suggested that Alonso enrol Zholani in his research study involving ICSI fertilization.

Unlike the normal process of in-vitro fertilization (which generally doesn’t work with horses), the ICSI process involves injecting a single sperm into an egg extracted from a mare. The embryo then develops in a lab for a week before being implanted in the mare. Few facilities in the country have the capability to perform ICSI fertilizations, so UC Davis worked in collaboration with the Equine Embryo Laboratory at Texas A&M University.

Although human IVF has been successful since the 1970s, success rates in horses hover between zero and 30%, and very few foals have been born using thisn technology.

After extracting follicles from Zholani’s ovaries, six of her eggs and El Gavilan’s sperm were shipped to Texas A&M, where two viable embryos were created. Because of Zholani’s inability to previously get pregnant, the team felt it was a safer option to use a recipient mare to carry the pregnancy. A recipient mare would also allow Zholani to continue in competition. The second embryo was frozen for future use.

Carol Alonso with PICSI at a few days old.
Carol Alonso with PICSI at a few days old.

A mare named Kaikoura was chosen from UC Davis’ Center for Equine Health (CEH) to carry the embryo. Due to the criticalness of the early period of an equine pregnancy, Kaikoura was held at CEH for the first six weeks before she was taken to Alonso’s barn for the duration of the pregnancy. A few weeks before her due date, Kaikoura was brought back to UC Davis and put on “foal watch.”

Lord Nelson was born on Alonso’s 45th wedding anniversary, which also happened to be her husband’s birthday. Having celebrated all day, the Alonsos were exhausted when they received Dr Christensen’s midnight phone call, stating he was witnessing the birth. They drove nearly two hours to Davis in the wee hours of the morning to see the new arrival.

PICSI (pronounced Pixie), as Alonso likes to call Lord Nelson, will begin his career training for dressage as soon as he matures. His lineage has Alonso excited for his prospects. This has been a dream come true for her, having seen through a project more than two decades in the making.

Carol with PICSI at a month old.
Carol with PICSI at a month old.
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7 thoughts on “Against the odds: ‘Miracle’ IVF foal born in US

  • October 4, 2015 at 4:02 am
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    ICSI is being performed commercially by at least 3 other facilities that I am aware of in the USA (Dr. Rick Beck, InFoal inc, Hemet, California – infoal-inc.com; Dr. Rob Foss, Equine Medical Services, Columbia, Missouri – equmed.com; and Colorado State University Equine Reproduction Laboratory, Fort Collins, Colorado). While it is true that success rates are low (the literature suggests about 10% live foal rate from the original starting point), increasing numbers of foals are being produced each year at these facilities using ICSI.

    Reply
    • October 5, 2015 at 5:50 am
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      In the past, commercial ICSI has been performed by using an incision in the flank of the mare to procure follicles from the ovaries. What was cool about this UCD/TAMU process was that the follicles were aspirated from the ovaries without any invasive surgery.

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      • October 5, 2015 at 8:24 am
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        Transvaginal oocyte retrieval has been performed in the equine for greater than 10 years, with evaluations for subsequent fertility being described in the literature in 2005 (Mari G, Barbara M, Eleonora I, Stefano B. (2005) Fertility in the mare after repeated transvaginal ultrasound-guided aspirations. Anim Reprod Sci. 88(3-4):299-308). There are advantages and disadvantages to both the transvaginal and the flank-incision techniques.

        The three facilities I mentioned above all perform transvaginal ultrasound-guided aspirations, as well as flank incision retrieval (although I believe Dr. Foss only uses TUGA as a matter of routine). For those interested, Dr. Beck offers a video of retrieval at http://infoal-inc.com/services/transvaginal-aspiration/ and Dr. Foss offers some oocyte images at http://www.equmed.com/?page_id=543 Dr. Beck’s site also contains a variety of other information and images/video related to harvest and the ICSI process.

        I am pleased that your procedure worked out well. The advances constantly being made in the equine reproductive field make it a fascinating subject.

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    • October 9, 2015 at 9:36 am
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      You have missed the point of what is new and exciting about this story. It is true that ICSI has been performed with very good success for many years by a limited number of facilities. What is news, and has only recently been achieved, is the ability to use the ICSI biotechnology WITHOUT having to ship your mare cross country to one of these facilities. This is what was so cool, and new, and relatively unique, about what happened at UC Davis. The TVA procedure was performed in California, the oocytes shipped to Texas where ICSI was performed, and then the resultant embryo shipped back to California for transfer. The donor mare stayed in her home neighborhood for the entire process. I am aware of only a couple other practices (and most of those in Texas, driving distance away from Texas A&M) who are using remote TVA at this point.

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  • October 7, 2015 at 4:36 am
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    I just want to be clear by what UC Davis meant by these statements. We aren’t saying that this is the first time this procedure has been done. We understand that it’s also happening at other facilities. We’re just stating it’s the first time it’s been done at UC Davis. We’re very excited about this feat, and look forward to helping more horse owners fulfill their dreams.

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    • October 9, 2015 at 9:41 am
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      And I just want to clarify what I said above: ICSI was not actually performed at UC Davis and the cool thing about this case is exactly that. Yes, ICSI has been in use for years now, so an ICSI foal is not really news. What is news is that the donor mare did not have to travel to Colorado or Texas or Missouri to have this procedure performed. The mare stayed near her home in Northern California and her oocytes were collected there and shipped overnight to Texas where the ICSI was performed and then subsequent embryos were either frozen or shipped back to California where embryo transfer occurred. This change in the technology allows ICSI to be used by a greater number of mares across the country.

      Reply
  • October 25, 2015 at 12:24 pm
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    Again, congratulations to the UC-D team!

    I am happy to report that Dr. Foss has also this year had several foals born as a result of ICSI performed on oocytes shipped to him from a different harvesting location.

    These collective foals all represent a new step forward in the equine reproductive process!

    (My apologies for the delay in this response – I wanted to definitively confirm with the oocyte-harvesting veterinarian that they had successfully foaled the mares).

    Reply

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