DENVER/May 31, 2011 – Amid the national outbreak of equine herpesvirus-1 (EHV-1), an airborne virus that has infected at least 41 horses this month, Morris Animal Foundation–funded researchers continue their work to develop a vaccine to this highly contagious pathogen. The Foundation is currently funding four studies on the virus with goals of identifying new targets for developing more effective therapies and vaccines to treat and prevent EHV-1 infection, respectively.
When horses are infected with EHV-1, the clinical signs can be scary for any owner. The virus can cause a variety of ailments in horses, including rhinopneumonitis, a respiratory disease usually found in young horses; abortion in broodmares; and myeloencephalopathy, which includes fever, incoordination, weakness or paralysis of the hind limbs and incontinence. The virus is generally passed from horse to horse when affected animals sneeze or cough and through contact with nasal secretions.
With funding from Morris Animal Foundation, researchers at Colorado State University, Cornell University and Freie Universität Berlin are working in their labs to unlock the mysteries of EHV-1.
Dr. Gisela Soboll Hussey, from Colorado State University, is using an equine airway culture system to study the role of specific genes that may impair a horse’s early immune response to EHV-1. This new information will identify new targets for developing therapies and will have wide-ranging impacts on the ability to design effective EHV-1 vaccines that could prevent infection.
EHV-1 can also cause spinal cord injuries that lead to devastating neurological disease. Mildly affected horses may only lose tail sensation, but severely affected horses are often paralyzed and must be euthanized. These injuries occur because blood clots form in the horse’s blood vessels, starving the spinal cord of oxygen. Why horses with EHV-1 develop these blood clots is unknown, but at Cornell University, Dr. Tracy Stokol is looking at whether EHV-1 produces blood clots by infecting cells within the bloodstream or cells lining the blood vessels and turning them into clot-forming agents. Her findings could help decrease the rate of euthanasia in affected horses.
In another Foundation-funded study at Cornell University, Dr. Bettina Wagner is working to develop novel tools for studying the equine immune system that will help the equine research community diagnose a wide variety of equine infectious diseases, including EHV-1. This project will contribute to the development of new and improved vaccines and novel treatment strategies for equine veterinarians.
Dr. Nikolaus Osterrieder, at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany, has successfully identified an EHV-1 protein that enables herpesviruses to hide within cells and avoid destruction by the horse’s immune system. By understanding the molecular mechanism that enables EHV-1 to hide from the immune system, researchers hope to develop improved vaccines that are capable of inducing better protection against this devastating disease.
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