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Page last updated at 10:30 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009
Progress in dog and horse disease
By Andrew Woodger
BBC Suffolk

Dr Sarah Blott
Dr Sarah Blott with some of the Suffolk horses she's researching

The Animal Health Trust near Newmarket says it's forging ahead with studies into inherited diseases in horses, dogs and even humans.

The last 10 years have seen benefits arising from the Genome Project which has mapped out various animal species at the genetic level.

The Suffolk-based trust has an ongoing project to research disease in the Suffolk Punch breed of heavy horse.

They showed off their work to the Queen who visited the centre in October 2009.

"We owe it to our animals, if we're going to breed them, that we produce the happiest and healthiest that we can," said Dr Cathryn Mellersh, quantitative geneticist at the Animal Health Trust (AHT).

The AHT, which is based at Kentford, is a veterinary charity dedicated to improving the welfare of horses, dogs and cats.

Dr Cathryn Mellersh in an Animal Health Trust lab
Research in genetics 'has improved dramatically in the last 5 years'

Since the 1990s, the Genome Project has been carried out at the Sanger Institute near Cambridge. It's been recording genomes of a variety of species, including humans, and this has meant research by bodies such as the AHT has also come on leaps and bounds.

"The sequencing of the horse gene in 2007 has radically altered the way we can do research into equine genetics," said Dr Sarah Blott, who's an equine quantitative geneticist.

"We can sample 60,000 points in the genome whereas before we would only have done around 2-300."

Queen Elizabeth II is a patron of the AHT - not surprising given her love of horses and corgis - and you can look at photos of her visit In pictures: the Queen at the Animal Health Trust .

"Our aim is to help breeders develop breeding strategies that will ensure their long-term future," said Dr Blott.

Queen Elizabeth II planting a tree
HM Queen Elizabeth II plants a tree at the Animal Health Trust

One of the trust's projects involves looking at genetic diversity in the Suffolk Horse (aka Suffolk Punch) breed.

"Because it's a rare breed, it's at potential risk of inherited disease becoming a problem in the future and we're looking at breeding strategies to prevent that," said Dr Blott.

"I think there are about 200 breeding mares and 25 stallions, so over time all individuals become more inbred so that's a risk factor for inherited disease.

"So what we're doing is surveying the current genetic diversity. We're using computer modelling to ask what happens if we use different breeding strategies."

The racing industry

It's not just the Suffolk - the horse team carries out work for the Newmarket racing industry and the problem of broken legs.

"Our thoroughbred project is trying to uncover the genes underlying fracture and osteochondrosis," continued Dr Blott.

"There are plenty of animals in the UK with very high value affected by musclar-skeletal problems. Once you understand them you can try new therapeutic approaches.

"The Queen is a great lover of dogs and horses and she certainly asked some very insightful questions and seemed to be interested in what we had to say."

Sharing disease with dogs

Research into dogs has a similar aim - to understand genetic mutations that lead to diseases such as eye disease and epilepsy.

Dr Cathryn Mellersh, who specialises in canine genetics, said:

"Once we've established the problem at gene level we can develop a DNA test to see if a particular dog carries that disease.

Dr Cathryn Mellersh
Dr Cathryn Mellersh takes a swab from a dog

"The work that we do can benefit humans in the long-run as well. Dogs and humans do share virtually all the same genes and get an awful lot of the same diseases.

"It's often simpler to understand the inherited diseases in a dog family and then relate some of those findings to human beings.

"We've recently located a disease that makes the lens come adrift in the eye and we now believe the same gene is involved in dogs and humans.

"Five years ago, if we'd wanted to investigate the role of a particular gene in a particular disease, we'd have had to go into the lab for about six months, possibly to find out that the gene had nothing to do with it!

"Now we can probably do the same experiment in about three days.

"It's a very exciting time to be working in the field of genetics."

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