Finding a cure for the horse disease laminitis

A QUT research team led by Professor Martin Sillence and Dr Melody de Laat are looking at potential treatments for laminitis—the second most common cause of death in horses and ponies.

Late in 2013, laminitis claimed the life of Black Caviar’s brother, Jimmy. However, the disease doesn’t just claim the lives of top racehorses, it also affects paddock ponies.

Laminitis has been around for more than 2000 years (that we know of), but its cause was a mystery until 2007. That’s when Martin and his team published a discovery that changed our understanding of the disease. They’d found a link between high levels of insulin and laminitis.

Martin says: “There’s been an explosion in this disease in the last 40 years, coinciding with when we started to improve pastures and the type of feed horses and ponies are given.

“The change in diet causes higher insulin levels in all horses, but in certain individuals the insulin levels get totally out of control. Unlike in humans, the horse pancreas never fails and instead continues to pump out insulin until toxic levels are reached.”

After several years of chasing false leads, Martin was almost ready to give up on a laminitis treatment. He then had a ‘light-bulb’ moment when he realised the answer may be treating horses with drugs that target hyperinsulinaemia from a new angle.

The small intestine produces incretins in response to eating sugar. They in turn trigger the pancreas to stimulate increased insulin production. By controlling incretin production and thus insulin levels, Martin realised it might be possible to prevent laminitis occurring.

Martin approached qutbluebox with his idea. We agreed it had commercial potential and invested proof-of-concept funding to kick-start the research and a clinical trial in ponies.

“For 5 years I’d been working in an administrative role at QUT,” explains Martin.

“I hadn’t written a grant application for five years, so I had zero staff, no students and no funding.

“Based on my new idea, and the market size and value of the preventative, qutbluebox invested more than $140,000. The initial results from our study were very promising and over a year later, we’ve got $2.1 million in research grants and a large active team.

“We’ve got funding to test new treatments, which if successful will be the first treatment for the disease ever because at the moment its incurable. We should know if the new treatment works by June 2015.

“In tandem, we’re running a major international survey to study the disease. Veterinaries in Australia, in Britain, the UK, Europe and the US are collecting case studies for us. It’s the largest study of its kind in the world.

“And we’ve also got new theories that we’re working on and we’ve just submitted two ARC linkage grant proposals.”

bluebox continues to work closely with Martin and his team.

To find out more about the research project and just how Martin and he’s team are taking a whole new approach to laminitis, click on the video link above.

Read the case study.