Research consortium to take on genetic diseases

Research consortium to take on genetic diseases

Morris Animal Foundation ponies up $2.5 million to help fund efforts
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Oct 01, 2006

ST. PAUL, MINN. — As MIT's Broad Institute closes in on successfully mapping the estimated 300 billion base pairs that make up the equine genome this fall, the Morris Animal Foundation announces a $2.5-million grant to help fund the Equine Consortium for Genetic Research.

When Equus caballus is successfully mapped for the first time, the knowledge is expected to accelerate a decade of collaborative study ongoing at major laboratories in this country and abroad, explains Dr. Jim Mickelson, of the University of Minnesota's (UM) veterinary college.

Five major U.S. veterinary programs are part of this collaborative push to better understand equine genetics, including UM, the University of California-Davis, University of Kentucky, Cornell University and Texas A&M University as well as the Broad Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The consortium grant, led by Mickelson and UM veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Valberg, received the highest score out of 27 multi-institutional applications reviewed by the foundation. This consortium brings together 32 scientists from 18 academic institutions in nine countries to collaborate on equine genetic research.

"The goal of the grant is to bring together the world's best researchers in a focused, collaborative effort to improve equine health," Morris Animal Foundation reports.

Scientists will use the sequenced horse genome to identify genes and mutations that contribute to heritable diseases. Topping the list are musculoskeletal diseases like tying up, laminitis, recurrent airway obstruction and bone disease.

"There are a number of genes that cause deleterious disease in the horse," Mickelson explains. The consortium aims to identify these disease-causing genes and build diagnostic methods to breed them into extinction. Development of better disease therapeutics is also on the wish list.

Yet, for geneticists, the horse is an attractive species to study for other reasons.

"Horse breeders have maintained meticulous pedigree records for many horse breeds, some extending back over 300 years. Deep pedigree records coupled with excellent health and performance records provide excellent material for quantitative trait loci studies," according to the proposal for the map the horse genome.

Once Broad Institute scientists finish its mapping work, each of the universities will continue its investigations that target specific genetic diseases.

"We want to be able to find what these genes are and develop tests to eliminate them from the populations and help manage horses that are here now," he explains.

"It's not a novel idea, other groups working on other species have the same goals. Now all of a sudden we are able to expand this work into the horse," Mickelson explains.

"This is a group of scientists who have been working on the equine genome since the middle '90s. So, we have had a history of folks investigating genetics, it has just paid off for us this year in a big way."

Standardbreds, Norwegians and Scandinavians are all up for genetic exploration. The breed with the smallest population can be a favorite for a geneticists, Mickelson explains, simply because it defines the lineage and helps researchers more rapidly isolate markers on the genome. Valberg's team is investigating musculoskeletal disease. Tying up is estimated at affecting 5-10 percent of Thoroughbreds.

The hope is that the Equine Consortium for Genetic Research will greatly enhance the ability of clinical and basic scientists to study genetic processes contributing to high priority equine diseases and enhance knowledge regarding normal cellular processes governing equine biology.

"This project will benefit the entire horse industry, offer new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to reduce animal suffering, and promote equine health and welfare," Mickelson adds. "We will be able to do for the horse what we already can do for human and canine research."