Scientists work on blood test to detect racehorses at risk of catastrophic injury

Could a simple blood blood test help reduce the risk of catastrophic injury among racehorses? Photo: Noah Salzman CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia CommonsPhoto: Noah Salzman CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons
Could a simple blood test help reduce the risk of catastrophic injury among racehorses? Photo: Noah Salzman CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons

Researchers will attempt to identify racehorses at risk of catastrophic injury by using inflammatory and anti-inflammatory markers as early indicators.

The research, being carried out at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center, is being backed by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

Scientists have made many attempts to use biomarkers as indicators of injury, given the big economic costs of breakdowns to the racing industry, but the data so far has shown this isn’t reliable.

Instead, Gluck researchers will rely on measuring mRNA, or the precursors to proteins, from circulating white blood cells.

“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,” says principal investigator Allen Page, a scientist/veterinarian at the Gluck Center.

“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,” he explains.

“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 $US164,488 study 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 goal is to sample 150 catastrophically injured horses, as well as 1000 non-injured horses, 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,” says Gluck Center director David Horohov, who is co-principal investigator in the study.

“This may then be of use in the future to help identify horses that need additional examination before a race.”

Page says that while there has been a lot of work in the past 20 years to use large amounts of data and create models for determining risk factors for racehorse injuries, the use of these models is not yet widespread.

“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,” he says.

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