Investigating Horse Immunity

The immune system allows humans and animals including horses to survive in a complex world filled with harmful bacteria and viruses that can use our bodies for nourishment and reproduce within us. The immune system protects us from those organisms
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The latest equine immune system research in horses young and old.

The immune system is an amazing concept in both man and beast. It allows us to survive in a very complex world filled with harmful bacteria and viruses that can use our bodies for nourishment and reproduce within us. The immune system protects us from those organisms both by limiting their entrance into our bodies and helping rapidly eliminate the ones that manage to make it past those initial defenses (e.g., the skin, hairs within the nasal passages). Just as in humans, if a horse’s immune system isn’t functioning properly, he doesn’t have a good prognosis for a long or healthy life.

There are several components to a horse’s immune system. The structures or molecules that induce an immune reaction are called antigens, and these indicate to the immune system that a foreign and potentially dangerous material (such as a pathogenic bacteria or virus) is present. The immune system then produces antibodies (special infection-fighting proteins) to destroy the invading organism. (Read a more detailed rundown of how the horse’s immune system functions on page 23.)

Welfare and Research

Researchers throughout the world are studying the equine immune system and particularly, how it interacts with infectious diseases such as equine herpesvirus, influenza, and Streptococcus equi (the bacterium that causes strangles). D. Paul Lunn, BVSc, MS, PhD, MRCVS, Dipl. ACVIM, professor and head of the department of clinical sciences at Colorado State University’s (CSU’s) James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, is part of a group studying equine influenza virus and equine herpesvirus-1 (EHV-1). This research team is evaluating how some of the current vaccines against these diseases trigger the immune system to produce antibodies that protect horses from developing disease. But, most importantly, this group is working to develop new models for studying these infections. According to Lunn, these models could improve equine welfare in a research setting by allowing scientists to complete their work in vitro (in the laboratory, not in the live animal), thereby enabling them to develop new drugs and vaccines in a more ethical, efficient manner

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Written by:

Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer for equine ­science and human interest publications. Her work has appeared in several publications and on several websites, and she is a classical dressage instructor.

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