Unraveling the Arabian Horse’s Role in SCID Research

The silence in the house was eerie and pervasive, coating the morning air.

Yet I welcomed the quietness as my companion; it was what I needed as I concentrated on the pages of information before me.  For hours, I pored over the story of David Vetter, a child born in 1971 with severe combined immunodeficiency, or SCID.  I read of how Vetter, nicknamed “Bubble Boy”, was born without an immune system and was therefore confined to living in a plastic bubble free of germs for the twelve years of his life (“David Phillip Vetter,” 2006).

David Vetter ("Bubble Boy"), circa 1977 By NASA Johnson Space Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

David Vetter (“Bubble Boy”), circa 1977
By NASA Johnson Space Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A close family friend of mine had just called the previous day, relaying the news that her second child, a newborn named Jeremy, had been diagnosed with SCID.  Her voice shook on the phone as I realized that she had just as many questions about the disease as I did.

How could I possibly help my friend, I thought, when I hardly knew anything about this rare disease myself?

And from there, the search for answers began.

The Basics

From the conversation with my friend and my perusal of Vetter’s story, I was able to gain an understanding of SCID and its symptoms.  Patients diagnosed with SCID suffer from a defect in the B- and T- lymphocytes such that they are left without a functioning immune system.  Symptoms include susceptibility to various infections such as pneumonia, ear infections, and meningitis that can be life-threatening due to their frequency and severity in these children.  Without proper treatment, patients with SCID can die in their first or second year of life (Kamani, Kapoor, & Peters n.d.).

The good news is that since David Vetter’s story in 1971, researchers have made great strides toward more effective SCID treatment.  Children with SCID can receive bone marrow transplants or gene therapy to boost their immune systems and overall conditions (Notarangelo, n.d.).

Yet while there have been many successes, current treatment options are still far from perfect.

Animal Models

My questions eventually led me to pay a visit to an old mentor, Dr. Stevens, a pediatrician at a local hospital who also turned out to be an expert on SCID. He told me that biomedical researchers often use animal models as they seek to improve treatment options for SCID patients.  Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has said…

“Virtually every major medical advance for both humans and animals has been achieved through biomedical research using animal models to study and find a cure for a disease and through animal testing to prove the safety and efficacy of a new treatment.”

Because certain animals have similar body systems to humans, suffer from the same diseases that plague humans, and can be studied in controlled environments, they are useful in biomedical research.  Mice are the traditional models used to advance our knowledge of SCID and other diseases, but research on SCID might soon open up to a whole new avenue.

Fitting Horses Into the Puzzle

Dr. Stevens then informed me that Arabian horses also suffer from SCID, which, in horses, is an autosomal-recessive condition that exhibits clinical signs and symptoms similar to those seen in humans (Felsburg, Somberg, & Perryman, 1992).

An Arabian mare, a non-traditional animal model for SCID

An Arabian mare, a non-traditional animal model for SCID

Not only is the Arabian horse a non-rodent, large animal that can be used to enhance our understanding of the hematopoietic system, but its susceptibility to SCID and its long life span also make it optimal for SCID research. Since adverse events (such as the development of leukemia) can unfortunately arise in bone marrow treatment for SCID, this non-traditional research model can be used to test the efficacy and safety of alternative therapies, like gene therapy and stem cell transplantation, before being clinically implemented in humans (Bauer, Alder, & Hickstein, n.d.).

Although Arabian Horses aren’t being utilized for research purposes as often as their benefits suggest, we can’t dismiss the idea of using them too quickly.  Children and newborns like Jeremy are relying on the innovations that these animals might be able to provide.

It was a dark Monday morning when my research on SCID first began, but there is no doubt that a bright future is on the horizon for sufferers of this rare disease, all due to one special animal – the Arabian horse, an unusual ally in our fight against SCID.

In Brief:

  • Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) is a rare disease that leaves sufferers without a functioning immune system.
  • The Arabian horse can allow researchers to better understand how SCID functions because it is also susceptible to the disease.
  • Use of the Arabian horse as a research model may lead to improved alternate therapies for SCID.

This article was written by cYw7. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff

Works Cited


Author: cYw7

“Hi cYw readers! This is my first article with cYw, and it has been such an amazing opportunity to be able to research these non-traditional animal models, learn about their applications to biomedical research, and share my findings with a thoughtful community. You could say that my love of science has followed me all throughout my life, from my enthusiastic participation in every elementary school science fair to my current studies at a STEM high school. Needless to say, I’m passionate about STEM education and as of now would like to major in biomedical engineering, neuroscience, or a related discipline to eventually become a professor engaged in research and educating the next generation. My favorite hobbies are singing, horse-back riding, and volunteering. Outside of school, I am an active Girl Scout looking to earn the Gold Award, a leader in my church’s youth group, and an ESL student instructor.”

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    Thank you. I have a lecture to give on non-traditional animal models to our post-doc, and had no idea where to start. At least I now have a starting point!

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    This was a wonderful article and I am very interested in learning more, therefore I was wondering if you know of any interesting research that is currently happening or has just taken place on the topic. I am always amazed at how similar humans are to other species and the benefits that we have for each other. Are there any other animals being modeled and if so what are the benefits of modeling them?

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      Response from the author:
      Absolutely! As stated in the article, animal modeling has been instrumental in biomedical research and has contributed to many medical advances. This blog is dedicated to exploring other unconventional animal models, and perusing through the previously published articles will allow you to learn more about many of these animal models (e.g.: chinchillas, golden retrievers, etc.) and the individual benefits that they provide in our research of different diseases.

      mramina speaking:
      The Works Cited links at the bottom of each student-written articles are also great resources. We do our best to reblog animal model and science-related things here on cYw and at our tumblr here: http://curious-writers.tumblr.com/

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    What is it that makes horses so great to study? I understand that they have longer life spans than rodents but wouldn’t this result in their symptoms just lasting longer rather than changing or exposing anything new? I wonder if the problem with rodent experimentation is that long term treatment is not possible due to their shortened life spans. I hope that we find a way to treat this disease very soon, and horses may be the way that it is done.

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      Response from the author:
      The benefits of studying horses are manifold. Their longer life spans allow them to be studied by researchers for a longer period of time, allowing for a more prolonged and detailed observation of symptoms and response to treatment. I agree; Arabian horses offer a promising solution and require our attention.

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    It’s a good thing to hear that this research could help improve the alternate therapies for SCID. I was just wondering if you could explain some terms that an ordinary person might not know, such as the autosomal-recessive condition. This could help readers who are not familiar with these kind of terms understand more. Great job! 🙂

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      Response from the author:
      Thank you very much. I would be pleased to. An autosomal-recessive condition can be described as a condition that requires two copies of the abnormal gene in order for the disease to be manifested. In the case of SCID in Arabian horses, the affected horse would need a diseased gene from the stallion as well as one from the mare. An in-depth explanation can be found here: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002052.htm. If there are any other terms that need clarification, please let me know. Thank you.

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    I love how you wrote this article based on something that was personal to you. In addition, I thought it was very commendable how you actually went to interview a doctor instead of just looking up the information on the internet. You mentioned that there have been improvement in SCID therapies such as bone marrow transplant, was this discovered through the Arabian horse? Also, are there any other treatments besides the ones you mentioned. Thanks
    Good Job! 🙂

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      Response from the author:
      As of now, I am only aware of the treatments outlined in the article: gene therapy, bone marrow transplants, and sterilized bubbles (that keep the patient in a sterile environment but serve no purpose in correcting the condition, as in the case of David Vetter). Bone marrow transplants have been in use since the twentieth century and were not discovered through the Arabian horse. However, the success of these transplants hinges on various factors and is not guaranteed to be a perfect cure in every case. Perhaps this article, though not as recent, may be of interest to you:http://childrenshospital.org/newsroom/Site1339/mainpageS1339P644.html. It discusses the complications associated with SCID treatment but also describes current research that could be safer and more effective. My hope is that Arabian horse research will also open up the door to other, more effective treatments or improve the current options. Thank you for the feedback!

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