Rare Horses in EIA/HIV Research Rescued From Dangerous 4,500-Mile Journey

Herd Is Key to Vital Research Program on Equine Infectious Anemia, Implications for AIDS Research

WEST BOYLSTON, Mass., Aug. 15, 2011 /PRNewswire-iReach/ -- For several decades, West Boylston's historic, idyllic Malden Brook Farm (www.vetfrontiers.org/maldenbrookfarm.nxg) has been home to generations of a truly irreplaceable herd of horses. Numbering 45 animals today, these horses are part of the Western Hemisphere's most important research on Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA), which is similar to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the causative agent of AIDS.

Dr. Robert Tashjian is a local veterinarian and scientist with over 40 years of veterinary  experience. He is also one of America's foremost authorities on EIA. Through the modest resources of America Veterinary Medical Frontiers, Inc. (www.vetfrontiers.org/), which he founded in 1995 and leads today, Tashjian has quietly but effectively overseen the EIA research program.

The implications of AVMF's EIA research go far beyond equine health. On the molecular and clinical levels, EIA is very similar to HIV. Consequently the AVMF research on EIA may have profound implications for AIDS research.

Recently, however, the viability of this far-reaching research has been threatened because of financial pressure to keep the program afloat. So scientists in Nicaragua have offered to continue studies of the herd in that country with AVMF, rather than see this vital research end if underfunding puts AVMF out of operation. Countries such as Nicaragua, where horses far outnumber tractors and other motorized farm implements, understand implicitly the vital role of the AVMF herd for developing ways to fight the EIA virus.

 "The herd has never been confined to horse trucks nearly as long as the trip to Nicaragua – about 4,500 miles – would take," Tashjian observed. "Many of them could well succumb to the stress of the trip along the way. If this happens, our research will suffer a terrible blow, and millions of horses everywhere would be more susceptible to perishing from EIA. AIDS research could suffer as well."

Fortunately, Dr. Tashjian has decided against moving the herd to Nicaragua for now, and instead try to raise the funds necessary to save the research program before it's too late. "Malden Brook Farm provides a research environment unlike any other in the U.S.," Tashjian said. "Our free-range, natural surroundings enable the herd to live 'socially,' which is an ideal arrangement for studying EIA."  

This environment, too, is threatened by state and federal "test and destroy" regulations, which restrict EIA-positive horses to live in quarantine and then death by killing them. Currently, no EIA-positive horses reside at Malden Brook.

Recent EIA Breakthrough at Malden Brook

According to Gregory R. Ciottone, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine and chair of the Disaster Medicine Section at Harvard Medical School, "Through his cutting-edge research over the past 40 years, Dr. Tashjian has become one of a very few internationally recognized experts in EIA. His collaborative work has led to a number of breakthroughs in the understanding of this lethal retrovirus. The culmination of this research is the idea that a vaccine for EIA, similar in structure and action to human HIV, may be possible."

In late 2010, AVMF announced a breakthrough in the field of retroviral research with confirmation of a successfully bred horse with natural immunity to EIA. This advancement adds significantly to the understanding of retroviruses, and may have implications for the understanding of HIV.

Lentiviruses, a class of retroviruses, damage the immune system of horses (EIA), simians (SIV) and humans (HIV). In the 1970s, Dr. Tashjian observed that an EIA-positive herd of horses lived side by side with EIA-negative horses, without a statistical increase in mortality among the negative horses.

Dr. Tashjian brought a small herd of seemingly EIA-resistant horses to West Boylston and started a breeding program. The intent was to amplify and document the natural immunity that he had observed anecdotally decades before. That natural immunity had recently been confirmed when "Nora" tested negative for EIA despite significant exposure to the virus.

Sadly, however, regulations promulgated by the Division of Animal Health of the Massachusetts Division of Agricultural Resources doomed Nora to a cruel death out of fear she could infect other horses. This in spite of the fact that Nora had lived at Malden Brook Farm disease-free for the prior 10 years. She had been the first horse bred for immunity to a retrovirus. So her demise is doubly unsettling, both scientifically and ethically.

"We realize that we're fighting an uphill battle to keep the research going," Tashjian said. "But for the sake of the animals and the possible good our EIA research may have for AIDS research, we refuse to go down without a fight."

AVMF is accepting financial donations to help rescue the remaining horses in the Malden Brook herd and sustain the vital research Tashjian and his colleagues have undertaken for so many years. Click here (www.vetfrontiers.org/contact.nxg) to donate securely online.

Media Contact: Dr. Robert Tashjian, VMD American Veterinarian Medical Frontiers, Inc., 508-835-6258, rtashjian@vetfrontiers.org

SOURCE American Veterinary Medical Frontiers, Inc.



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