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:

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Works Cited