Equine veterinarians make steps toward solving the laminitis mystery

Equine veterinarians make steps toward solving the laminitis mystery

An intensive area of study, laminitis still confounds researchers looking to advance our knowledge of disease origin, prevention and treatment. But some promising new research projects are looking to make great strides toward better understanding.
Jul 01, 2013

This past March, the Daily Racing Form reported that several equine practitioners were making progress in solving the mystery of laminitis by exploring the multitude of factors that lead to this devastating disease. Several researchers at the University of Pennsylvania New Bolton Center, the Hoof Diagnostic and Rehabilitation Clinic (HDRC) in Bryan, Texas, and other institutions are actively working toward that end.

"I believe we've taken some giant steps toward better understanding this multifaceted disease," says James Orsini, DVM, DACVS, associate professor of surgery at the New Bolton Center.

As molecular biology techniques continue to improve and the core of dedicated researchers expands, the goal is to conquer laminitis by the year 2020, says Rustin Moore, DVM, PhD, DACVS, chair of clinical studies at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine and author of Laminitis Vision: 20/20 by 2020—Conquer Laminitis by 2020.

"Not that laminitis will be totally eliminated," Orsini says, "but that we better understand the complexities of the disease well enough that we prevent at-risk horses from developing the disease more often than we treat at-risk horses. The clinical cases prevented from getting laminitis are clearly on the rise. Rather than treating many of these cases that are chronic and marginally responsive to medical management, we are recognizing them earlier and stopping the disease from happening. This is our ultimate goal."

The research group

Kurt Hankenson, DVM, MS, PhD, Dean W. Richardson Chair for Equine Disease Research and associate professor of musculoskeletal research and orthopedic surgery at the New Bolton Center, is studying mesenchymal stem cells and musculoskeletal regeneration. His research explores laminitis from the molecular level.

A graduate of the University of Illinois School of Veterinary Medicine, Hankenson went into equine practice, but his research interest pushed him from clinician to researcher. After receiving a master's degree from Purdue University in musculoskeletal research, Hankenson ended up at the University of Washington, working on his PhD. His first faculty position was at the University of Michigan's medical school—not at the veterinary school—in orthopedics, with a background in comparative musculoskeletal research.

Always interested in disease pathogenesis and treatment, Hankenson was recruited in 2006 to the University of Pennsylvania and worked in the department of animal biology until 2012, when he took over the Dean W. Richardson Chair in Equine Disease Research. It was a great opportunity for him to transition to doing research that was more impactful in veterinary medicine. As the Richardson Chair, Hankenson will continue to build and to better integrate the university's research program in laminitis.

After the tragic injury and death of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, an influx of goodwill and philanthropy funded the research chair and helped establish the Laminitis Institute, which Orsini directs. The institute offers outreach as well as clinical and research components. Hankenson will oversee the research component.

Hannah Galantino-Homer, VMD, PhD, DACT, senior investigator in laminitis research at the New Bolton Center, established the Laminitis Laboratory at the center in 2008 and has a three-phase attack on the disease:

1. Creating and maintaining the Laminitis Discovery Database, an archive of tissue samples from natural and experimental laminitis cases

2. Investigating global changes in gene and protein expression during laminitis pathogenesis

3. Developing an organotypic culture system for lamellar epidermal cells to allow in vitro laminitis studies and reduce reliance on live animal experimental laminitis induction models as well as to lay the groundwork for equine epidermal regenerative therapies for the hoof, skin and eye.

David Hood, DVM, PhD, with the HDRC, is studying the chronically foundered horse as opposed to acute cases. The New Bolton Center's experimental model samples focus on the developmental and acute phases. The natural cases represent all stages of the disease but primarily reflect chronic disease.