Genetic cause of fatal condition in foals identified in Thoroughbreds; a test is now available

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File image. Photo by Chris Kendall

Researchers have identified a genetic cause for the fatal condition equine familial isolated hypoparathyroidism (EFIH) in Thoroughbreds.

The work at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, has resulted in the first genetic variant for hypoparathyroidism identified in any domestic animal species.

Additionally, it is the first widely available genetic test for Thoroughbreds.

The study, led by Drs Carrie Finno and Gary Magdesian, is reported in the journal PLOS Genetics.

Genetic testing can now be performed at the university’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory to identify horses with the variant and avoid mating carriers that could produce affected foals.

“For Thoroughbred owners and breeders, the loss of a foal has tremendous economic and emotional impacts,” said first author Victor Rivas, who conducted the project as part of his undergraduate training in Finno’s laboratory.

“It is important to promote safe and strategic breeding habits by actively breeding horses genetically screened not only for EFIH, but for other diseases that may impact quality of life.”

Foals affected by the condition suffer from low blood calcium concentrations, resulting in involuntary muscle contractions, muscle stiffness that leads to a stiff gait and can progress to an inability to stand, seizures, fevers, and an abnormally fast pulse.

Parathyroid hormone is typically produced to increase calcium levels in the body, but in these foals, concentrations are low or “inappropriately” normal (that is, they should be high due to the low calcium).

Affected foals die or are euthanized because of their poor prognosis.

Post-mortem examinations have revealed underdeveloped or absent parathyroid glands.

Previously termed idiopathic hypocalcemia, EFIH has been observed in Thoroughbred foals up to 35 days of age.

Disease onset and progression are likely determined by the amount of calcium in the diet early in life. This can vary based on dam milk calcium concentration and the amount of milk ingested.

The current study determined an autosomal recessive mode of inheritance. The researchers performed whole genome sequencing of two affected foals.

A mutation in the rap guanine nucleotide exchange factor 5 (RAPGEF5) gene was present in two copies (homozygous) in both foals.

The variant was further analyzed in a frog developmental model and demonstrated loss-of-function of the RAPGEF5 protein leading to aberrant development.

Based on this data, the researchers hypothesize that RAPGEF5 may play a role in the derivation of the parathyroid gland during development.

The variant was not identified in individuals from 12 other breeds. The allele frequency for the RAPGEF5 variant in an expanded set of 82 randomly selected, unaffected Thoroughbreds was 0.018.

An unbiased allele frequency study has not been performed, so the allele frequency in the larger Thoroughbred population is currently unknown.

“The next steps are to assess the allele frequency in a large population of randomly selected Thoroughbreds,” Finno says.

“Additionally, we have discussed collaborating with Dr Nathan Slovis at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Kentucky to test for the variant in cases of ‘sudden death’ in Thoroughbred foals.”

The clinical presentation of EFIH is similar to human familial hypoparathyroidism.

Since the RAPGEF5 gene is highly conserved across species, it is a potential new candidate gene for primary hypoparathyroidism in humans.

“This type of research discovery requires a unique collaboration between clinicians, pathologists and basic researchers,” Finno says.

He said the researchers were fortunate to have samples submitted from Drs Slovis, Daniella Leuthy (University of Pennsylvania) and Laura Javsicas (Rhinebeck Equine) and the expertise of Drs Brian Caserto (VetPath services) and Andrew Miller (Cornell University).

Additionally, the “proof” of functional results of this genetic mutation would not have been possible without our collaborator from Yale University, Dr Mustafa Khohka.

Support for the study was provided by the University of California, Davis, Center for Equine Health.

Rivas VN, Magdesian KG, Fagan S, Slovis NM, Luethy D, Javsicas LH, et al. (2020) A nonsense variant in Rap Guanine Nucleotide Exchange Factor 5 (RAPGEF5) is associated with equine familial isolated hypoparathyroidism in Thoroughbred foals. PLoS Genet 16(9): e1009028. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1009028

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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