Why studying horses could help humans stay healthy, too

As a veterinarian science researcher, equine surgeon, and rehabilitation and sports medicine specialist, I’ve observed the similarities between horses and human beings in person.

As well as, people suffering from conditions that affect the endocrine system, such as Type 2 diabetes, can suffer different types of musculoskeletal problems. For instance, horses suffering from pituitary pars intermedia disorder–similar to Cushing’s diseases in humans suffer due to the tendon as well as loss of the ligament. Horses also can experience muscle loss, resulting in joint instability. This and the ongoing low-grade inflammation associated with endocrine disorders may cause osteoarthritis.

A medical principle known as “One Health” states that humans, animals, and the world are linked. For one to be healthy, everyone must be healthy. This also implies that we can learn about our well-being by investigating animal health and vice versa, such as the many endocrine systems between horses and humans.

The endocrine system of horses and humans

Your body’s endocrine system produces hormones that help support many of your body’s primary functions, such as growth and metabolism, development, sleep, and many more. Your hormones, including ligaments, bones, and tendons, are essential to your health. Certain endocrine conditions alter the way your body makes hormones and releases them. This could lead to osteoporosis ligament injuries, arthritis, and other orthopedic conditions.

Humans aren’t the only animal species affected by this cyclic phenomenon horses too. In reality, approximately 20 percent of horses and more than 34 percent of the population within the U.S. are affected by endocrine diseases, including metabolic syndrome. These conditions are usually associated with weight gain.

In both animals, the extent to which endocrine diseases are related to obesity and adverse health effects is complex. Horses, mammals, and humans have the same anatomy and physiological functions, and scientists have observed similar genetic linkages between metabolic diseases and obesity.

As with humans, horses suffering from endocrine issues often suffer from lower-grade inflammation. Inflammation is a normal reaction to sickness and injury. However, chronic, low-grade inflammation may have negative long-term consequences for the body. For instance, low-grade inflammation is linked to osteoarthritis of the metabolic type in humans. My lab is investigating this possibility in horses.

In most people who are overweight in childhood, this is linked to the mother’s overweight and is connected to a form of joint disease known as osteochondrosis. The foals born of heavy mares are also susceptible to this similar common disease.

Notes from research

Due to the similarity in horses and humans Due to the similarity between horses and humans, research into the diagnosis and treatment of metabolic diseases could offer health benefits for both species.

For instance, a particular class of drugs known as GLP-1 agonists, including Trulicity (dulaglutide) and Ozempic (semaglutide), is used extensively for treating Type II Diabetes and metabolic syndrome in individuals. This type of medicine can also be efficient for treating these diseases in horses, slowing the speed at which food goes down the stomach and delaying the release of glucose into the bloodstream.

A different class of drugs is called sodium-glucose Cotransporter Protein-2 inhibitors, including treatments like Jardiance (empagliflozin) and Farxiga (dapagliflozin). They are prescribed for treating Type 2 diabetes in people and the same problem for horses. The drugs affect the kidneys’ capacity to take in sugar from urine, so the body removes excessive amounts of sugar that it normally absorbs. This can significantly decrease blood insulin spikes. This could help to stop metabolic syndrome, obesity, and cardiovascular disease in humans and horses.

Certain dietary supplements, such as resveratrol, particularly when taken with the amino acid known as leucine, may aid in losing weight, flexibility, and the sensitivity of insulin in humans as well as horses. The reduction in blood insulin levels can help keep horses from getting laminitis, which causes inflammation of hoof tissues and may require euthanasia because of intractable pain.

Expanding precision medicine

One of the most significant research areas for humans and animals is the development of precision medicine. Instead of the conventional one-size-fits-all procedure, precision medicine uses data from a person’s genetics or environment and medical history to design the most appropriate treatment plan for each patient. For instance, the term “precision medicine” is commonly used in oncology when doctors look up genetic information on the patient’s cancer to help determine what treatments will work best for the patient.

In horses, the current focus of precision medicine concentrates on using DNA-based tests for diagnostic purposes to guide exercise regimens treatment, breeding, and breeding decision-making. Recent research on horses suggests that assessing the genetic determinants of specific metabolic characteristics might be instrumental in helping detect metabolic disorders shortly.

In precision medicine, doctors seek a complete picture of an individual’s overall health by employing the multi-omic approach. Multiomics is analyzing several “omics“-or information from various disciplines in biology, like epigenomics, lipidomics and genomics, and transcriptomics to better care for each patient.

The more researchers can learn from individual patients, including horses, the better veterinarians can treat each patient. My lab and many others employ multipleomic analyses to gather data that will eventually assist us in identifying more effective and safer treatments for horses and likely people with metabolic diseases. 


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