These days, horse owners are used to reaching for an ice bucket in an attempt to stave off laminitis. Regulatory vets have a tried and true protocol for managing EHV-1 outbreaks. Practicing vets have tests available to help diagnose a horse with EHV, influenza, botulism, or Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis. Farm managers are used to keeping their eyes peeled for Eastern Tent Caterpillars because of their risk to cause Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome.
But if not for the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, it's possible we wouldn't be doing any of that.
Grayson was founded in 1940 with the aim of supporting research to improve the health of horses. Since 1983, it has awarded more than $24.8 million to 346 projects at 43 universities internationally.
Just like everything else these days, costs for equine research are going up. Dr. Johnny Mac Smith, veterinary consultant to Grayson, said day rates for research horses have nearly tripled in the past decade.
“The average grant we fund today is twice what it was in 2000 so we've had to raise more money to keep up,” said Ed Bowen, Grayson president. “We're giving more money than ever but that doesn't mean we're funding more projects, so there's a frustration.”
Then there's the matter of competition for grants. Horses don't fit neatly into either the ‘livestock' or ‘pet' categories, and in some ways that makes it harder to find funding for them. The National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as national non-profits, want their dollar to go as far as possible in terms of impact, which may mean choosing a project related to food animals or small animal health over one benefitting horses. Equine projects can and do get funding from national groups (Morris Animal Foundation is a major funding source for equine research), but often need to show a broader scope for potential findings, such as application of a treatment or vaccine to a similar illness in other species.
Grayson has also sought to stem the tide of disappearing research dollars with career development awards for young researchers. So far, it has supplemented salary for 19 researchers, three of whom have since put together grant applications for their own projects. Several have told the Grayson board their awards made the difference between continuing their career in equine research or going into private practice. One of them was recently added to the Research Advisory Committee, bringing the group's efforts full circle.
Grayson's mission is to improve the health of the horse, which is why its work is not strictly limited to on-track safety (although it does fund analysis of Equine Injury Database data, which is helping guide improved track policy). In fact, Smith said its goal isn't to “direct” research into any particular subject area. Grayson's call for grant applications is a general one, and usually results in 60 to 65 potential projects, which are filtered through a 32-person advisory committee, made up of academic and practicing veterinarians. A four-person team evaluates, summarizes, and scores each application, which are judged on scientific merit, potential impact, grant-writing, budget, and likelihood of completion. Then, the broader committee pairs off scored applications and votes on which they prefer (not unlike March Madness, but with veterinarians).
Since 1999, Grayson has funded 227 grants, 195 of which have been projects eligible for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Already, 237 published pieces have been generated from those 195 projects (some resulted in more than one journal article).
“The anticipation is that anything we fund will result in at least one paper published in a peer-reviewed journal,” said Bowen. “The difference between the number we funded and the number that have papers out is that those others just haven't been published yet.”
Smith takes on the massive task of working with researchers to set deadlines for each phase of their projects, and emails often to check in.
In each year of Grayson's recent history, about 24 percent of projects have focused on musculoskeletal issues, 10 percent on laminitis (though that proportion is growing), 11 percent on respiratory conditions, roughly 33 percent on infectious disease, 12 percent on reproduction, and 10 to 12 percent miscellaneous. Topics are generally reflective of what's most important to practitioners, which is driven by horse owners. That's part of the reason laminitis is getting more of Grayson's funding these days. Although it's an old disease (Bowen has found references to laminitis in writings by Aristotle), Barbaro's 2007 death from support limb laminitis has it on everyone's mind now more than ever.
“That brought laminitis to the forefront for a lot of non-horse owners, even it also brought a lot of money in the form of the Barbaro Fund, which we were fortunate enough to be chosen to help allocate,” said Smith.
Research sometimes centers around the same diseases year after year, but that doesn't mean it's repetitive: individual projects are designed to go deeper on one element of the disease or treatment. And sometimes, research projects do not result in a cure or a better understanding of the illness – but that's just as helpful to scientists.
“Dr. Gary Lavin told me something when I first got involved in working on this,” said Dell Hancock, chairman of Grayson's board of directors. “He said, ‘Sometimes the doors you shut are just as valuable as the doors you open, because you know not to go down that avenue anymore.'”
Although it's well-known as a Thoroughbred non-profit, most of Grayson's work applies to all breeds, which is one reason Hancock says she got involved.
“Herpesvirus is herpesvirus and laminitis is laminitis, no matter who has it,” said Hancock.
What's on the horizon for Grayson and the research it funds? One group is working to develop a type of relief shoe apparatus for horses with injuries like Barbaro's. His laminitis was in the opposite foot from the hind leg which sustained his injuries, due to the extra force it took on while the injured leg was unusable. The shoe would allow the horse to stand on the injured limb while redirecting the horse's weight away from the injury site.
Smith said another group is doing some initial work on anti-coagulants and their potential to treat neurologic forms of equine herpesvirus-1, which could reduce fatalities associated with the virus.
Currently, Grayson is overseeing 26 active projects at 16 universities on three continents.
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