Princess adds voice to massive push to tackle equine grass sickness

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A horse suffering from grass sickness.
A horse suffering from grass sickness. © Equine Grass Sickness Fund

An ambitious new five-year plan to boost research into grass sickness in horses has been launched in Britain, with a team of scientists from different disciplines looking at the disease in new ways and from fresh angles.

The research drive by the Moredun Foundation Equine Grass Sickness Fund and the Equine Grass Sickness Fund (EGSF) was launched by Princess Anne, The Princess Royal, a patron for both charities, in a recent podcast.

The five-year plan aims to discover the cause and a means of prevention of equine grass sickness (EGS), and to improve the treatment of chronic cases.

In the 100 years since the disease was first discovered, many potential causes have been examined and disproved. Others remain key suspects, in what seems almost certainly a multifactorial disease. Proof of the cause, or causes, remains frustratingly elusive and seemingly impossible to pin down.

Despite many years of research, and much more now being known about the disease, the cause remains elusive. Once a horse or pony develops the disease there are few options for treatment, and in 75% of cases, the prognosis is hopeless.

The new plan will involve the recruitment of volunteer Horse Ambassadors and Vet Ambassadors to help create and inform a biobank and engage in citizens’ science. It will also see the development of a critical mass of scientists focusing on the disease in different ways, keeping the pressure up on familiar suspects such as mycotoxins and clostridium botulinum, but also taking a multi-disciplinary approach to shine new light on the disease.

The project will also undertake an open-minded review of what has been done to date, and establish the known facts, in order to identify promising new angles for investigation. “EGS seems likely to be multifactorial, so a cross-disciplinary approach may produce dividends,” the groups said.

A biobank of relevant samples and case reports will be developed as a resource for EGS researchers, as well as novel in vitro techniques of interrogating causal agents.

“For the future of Equine Grass Sickness research, we rely on the help of equine vets and horse owners to raise awareness of this dreadful disease, report cases and support us with our national EGS biobank project,” they said.

Sampling kits, prepaid postage labels, and detailed written and video sampling instructions are being made available for those taking part. Samples taken from the environment of the affected horses, such as soil, herbage and water, along with a questionnaire about the horse and its associated pasture, will provide cues to the underlying causes or triggers of the disease. Hence, both of these sample sets combined make the EGS biobank an invaluable resource for researchers.

“Samples from affected horses as well as relevant controls (e.g. co-grazing horses) are vital in advancing our research on EGS and will help us to understand why some horses are more susceptible to the disease than others.”

The Moredun Foundation Equine Grass Sickness Fund and The Equine Grass Sickness Fund (EGSF) have also launched a three-year research fellowship project. The new EGS Research Fellow will be based at the Moredun Research Institute and will spearhead the development of a new database and sample biobank to enable research to progress and encourage new thinking and inter-disciplinary collaborations.

Princess Anne said that for Moredun to launch a Research Fellowship as part of its centenary and to choose to do so on equine grass sickness is “pretty significant given their history, background and success in so many areas with livestock and diseases”.

“I am delighted to launch this new Fellowship for equine grass sickness at Moredun”.

EGSF has also approved funding for a research sabbatical at the Royal (Dick) Vet to focus specifically on mycotoxins, and for a PhD student at Moredun to develop organoid cultures for in vitro testing.

Supporters can play their part by making a donation, organising a fundraiser, buying merchandise, participating in raffles and auctions, leaving a legacy, or volunteering at an EGS event.

• Two webinars to launch the fellowship project and to explain to vets and horse and pony owners how to play their part are being hosted later this month; one for veterinarians on March 23, and the other for horse owners, on March 25. Both are at 7.30pm GMT.

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