Many medical studies involve laboratory animals, but when it comes to research on asthma, no creature provides a better model than the horse. Veterinarians at Virginia Tech are hoping to help humans who struggle to breathe.
That’s because horses are subject to a condition called equine heaves.
“They’re about the only animal that has a very similar condition to human asthma. They’ll have this disease once they’ve been diagnosed for life, and human asthmatics struggle with that too. If it’s not well managed, your airway is more inclined to constrict and constrict further. That’s true both in human asthma and in horses,” says Professor Virginia Buechner-Maxwell.
And she should know. She sees hundreds of horses each year at Virginia Tech’s large animal clinic. A fairly small number of horses have this condition in the mountains of Virginia – maybe 5% — but it’s often triggered by mold and is more common as you head north. In Europe, up to half of all horses develop heaves. They’re treated with the same drugs used in people, but when doing research, horses are far easier to study.
“When I have one of my horses in a study, I’m going to put them in a stall, and we’ll have this regime for them every day, and I know that’s going to happen. You have a human in the study, the medication they’re given — they might take it differently, they might forget it one day. They might go out and take a hike in an area where there’s lots of pollen, when they’re not really supposed to be doing that. With the horses we have a lot more control,” she says.
She says research on equines is safer for people. “There are things like tuberculosis or HIV – I’m susceptible to those. When I work with horses, that susceptibility is minimal if it exists at all.”
Finally, it may be easier to deal with the USDA when conducting animal research than to tangle with the FDA for human clinical trials. Dr. Maxwell hopes her research on the causes and treatments of recurrent airway obstruction in horses will also benefit people.