Genetic Risk Factor for Equine Eye Cancer Identified

Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common cancer found in equine eyes and the second most common equine tumor overall.
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equine eye cancer
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common cancer found in equine eyes and the second most common tumor of the horse overall. | Photo: Courtesy UC Davis
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the most common cancer found in equine eyes and the second most common tumor of the horse overall. Thanks to a recent genetic study led by researchers from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), veterinarians and owners can now identify horses at risk for ocular SCC and make informed breeding decisions.

In the cover article for the International Journal of Cancer, scientists announced the discovery of a genetic mutation in horses that is hypothesized to impact the ability of damage specific DNA binding protein 2 (DDB2) to carry out its standard role. Normally, the protein conducts DNA surveillance, looking for ultraviolet (UV) damage and then calling in other proteins to help repair the harm.

“The mutation is predicted to alter the shape of the protein so it can’t recognize UV-damaged DNA,” said Rebecca Bellone, PhD, an equine geneticist at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory and associate adjunct professor at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “We believe this is a risk factor because cells can’t repair the damage and accumulate mutations in the DNA that lead to cancer.”

Several equine breeds, including Haflingers, have a higher occurrence of limbal SCC, the form of the disease that originates in the junction between the cornea—the clear surface of the eyeball—and the conjunctiva that covers the white of the eye. A former study, conducted by Bellone and one of her research partners, Mary Lassaline, DVM, PhD, MA, Dipl. ACVO, found that about 26% of SCC-affected horses in a retrospective study were Haflingers

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