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Delegates voice resounding opposition to speed gene testing

Genetic research on the agenda as international breeders assemble

Dr Des Leadon: ITBF veterinary chair said use of genetic data could have a significant impact on commercial breeding
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Sixty delegates and visitors representing 19 nations voiced resounding opposition to speed gene testing, in accordance with a European Federation of Thoroughbred Breeders’ Associations position, during the opening session of the International Thoroughbred Breeders Federation (ITBF) Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, on Sunday.

The informal vote followed a discussion of genomic research and how it might apply to thoroughbred breeding and racing.

Dr Des Leadon, ITBF veterinary chair and Irish Equine Centre clinical consultant, said directors of the 16 ITBF member nations would consider whether to take an official position on issues covered in nine separate questions associated with EFTBA policy regarding genomics submitted to congress attendees.

Leadon noted that genomic companies have sought genetic data acquired during thoroughbred registrations for use in determining which genes provide superior racing performance.

International breeders have voiced concern that development of such data could rapidly alter the traditional approach to breeding “and would have an enormous impact on the marketplace,” Leadon said.

“The way forward is for the industry to understand the technology and how it should be applied,” said Ronan Murphy, managing director of Weatherbys General Stud Book for the UK and Ireland and the member representative for those countries on the International Stud Book Committee.

The first EFTBA position issue submitted to the congress attendees stated that the association “concluded that it sees no value presently in the widespread usage of performance test genomics (speed gene testing).” Fifty attendees agreed with that statement while ten disagreed.

An identical vote was made on the statement that “these tests have significant potential to adversely affect the existing pattern of racing and the practices and valuation system of the breeding industry.”

However, other votes acknowledged that genomics has been shown to be of value in the identification of predisposition to disease and other health issues and that consideration should be given to use of the science in collaboration with academic institutions.

Many profit-based companies are interested in thoroughbred performance profiling using DNA, said speaker Dr Max Rothschild, a professor specialising in animal breeding and genetics at Iowa State University in the United States.

In his presentation, Rothschild reviewed pros and cons with some of the products currently available to breeders, many of which clearly “are not the holy grail” for yielding major winners, he said.

Yet genomics, which have been widely used in breeding some livestock species, could help predict sounder hoses with better chances of racetrack success, Rothschild said, suggesting that breeders set up advisory groups of geneticists and veterinary specialists as well as obtain funds for research.

“You’re losing out if you don’t jump in soon,” Rothschild said of the rapidly emerging field.

Dr Brandon Velie of the department of animal breeding and genetics of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, reviewed how certain equine diseases have been identified to be genetically transmitted. Genetic testing can confirm or rule out some conditions and help determine an individual’s chance to develop a disease.

If genomic testing and research can help eliminate the incidence of disease, Velie said breeders and the industry should make the most of the opportunity afforded by the technology.

Earlier in the session, Dr John Grewar, senior researcher in equine studies at Wits Health Consortium in South Africa, reported that South Africa has developed significant research and protocols that should allow safe exportation of horses around the world without fear of spreading African Horse Sickness.

Under current proposed procedures involving testing before and during quarantine prior to shipment from parts of South Africa such as the Western Cape where AHS is not endemic, risks would be limited to a minimal one in 187,000 horses testing positive for AHS. That risk would be reduced by 12 times if a post-arrival quarantine was imposed.

“We can make exports a viable option,” Grewar said while suggesting that South Africa needs ITBF and other international support. “We think the science is sound. We think we can do this.”

“AHS is not an insurmountable challenge as a result of international collaboration and scientific advance,” he said in his presentation. “Evidence based on risk mitigation and export protocols will provide a sustainable and lucrative continuation of the global thoroughbred breeding industry.”

South African owners and breeders are currently trying to work on a plan to ship a number of horses, including high-profile runners such as L’Ormains Queen’s Plate winner and reigning South African Horse of the Year Legal Eagle and 2016 Durban July winner The Conglomerate, to the US in March. Under American policy, the horses would have to stay in quarantine for 60 days in New York but could have access to treadmills for exercise in order to stay in condition.

However, the American policy is not practical for colts or horses older than two, who also would be required to undergo stringent exams for contagious equine metritis including test breedings.

Due to international restrictions, South African horses have been subjected to grueling months of quarantine and travel before being allowed to enter many other countries. For example, those who have competed in Dubai have first been quarantined in Cape Town and then sent to Mauritius for three months of additional quarantine before being allowed to travel to Europe, where they then have to do another month or two of quarantine, depending on final destination.

The horses sent to the US will be able to travel on from there to Europe or other regions.

The way forward is for the industry to understand the technology and how it should be applied
E.W. Terms