New research reins in deadly equine disease

foals - Jolene Perdue webBy Jeanine Moyer for AgInnovation Ontario

Guelph – Researchers at the University of Guelph have made an equine breakthrough that can change the health of newborn foals.  Led by John Prescott, pathobiology researcher and former professor, the research team identified an uncommon, but deadly bacterium that causes necrotizing enteritis disease in very young foals, and has already created a vaccine for further research.

For years, an unknown strain of this intestinal bacterium has been killing foals within the first week of life. Prescott and his team have worked for several years to understand the cause of necrotizing enteritis in foals and recently identified the bacterial agent and its deadly toxin, which they have called NetF.

“We’ve identified this disease strain that multiplies among naturally occurring gastrointestinal bacteria and releases a toxin that damages the intestines of newborn foals and can kill them,” says Prescott.John Prescott - webBy identifying and understanding this unique toxin-producing strain of the bacterium, called Clostridium perfringens, Prescott and his team have been able to create a vaccination solution.

“The toxin can be neutralized through a vaccine that induces high levels of antibodies in the mothers, the mares, when given to mares before birth,” explains Prescott.

This newly discovered strain of intestinal disease needs further research to learn more and determine how common it is in newborn foals. So Prescott and his team are working with veterinarians and horse breeding farms in Ontario and in Kentucky, U.S. to learn more about this disease that has been going undiagnosed for so many years.

“We know that necrotizing enteritis is a problem, but need to determine how prevalent it is on farms with newborn foals,” explains Prescott, who notes that since the research has identified an otherwise diagnosable cause of death, increasing awareness is also an important part of the project to foster a better understanding of the disease in the equine community.

In the meantime, the vaccine is being developed in small quantities for further research and a patent has been applied for. Prescott says the information collected on this intestinal disease and the vaccine for it has potential to be applied to other animals too.

“The discoveries we’ve made have great potential to improve equine and animal health overall,” says Prescott. “This project will continue to evolve as we find more animal health applications, perhaps on a global scale.”

More research is needed to understand the impact of necrotizing enteritis and how the vaccine could make a difference, but the accomplishments Prescott and his team have made so far are starting to improve horse health in Ontario.

Funding from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs – University of Guelph Gryphon’s LAAIR (Leading to Accelerated Adoption of Innovative Research) program has assisted Prescott and his research team to continue their research and apply for the vaccination patent. The Gryphon’s LAAIR is supported through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.

Photo source: Jolene Perdue, John Prescott