VT Researches Study Horses to Help Treat Human Asthma

Reporter: David Tate

Blacksburg, VA - 1-in-15 Americans suffer from the respiratory disease asthma. In fact, asthma accounts for 25% of all emergency room visits here in the United States.

The millions of Americans who suffer from asthma now have an unlikely ally in an effort to cure the disease.

Over the past several years, researchers at Virginia Tech have been working on ways to counter the affects of the disease and one way they are doing it is by using horses.

Experts say horses are the perfect model to study the disease because while different things trigger horse asthma than trigger human asthma, the reaction is the same.

"So we can use horses to decide is this medication going to make them feel better and have fewer side effects and potentially that's something that can be used in a person," said Virginia Buechner-Maxwell, a researcher at the Maryland-Virginia Regional College for Veterinarian Medicine at Virginia Tech.

Some of the most important work at Virginia Tech's vet school deals with the asthma drug Albuterol, which not only relieves the receptors that cause asthmatic airway inflammation, but the drug also initiates the patients immune system, which can mean trouble.

"It also seems to bind to the immune cells and maybe make the inflammation worse. In humans, that in the long run, can actually make their disease progress and become worse over time. It's hard to study that in humans," said Buechner-Maxwell.

And that's where 20-year old "Saran" comes into play.

She's one of six resident asthmatic horses at the school that, in return for a fresh breath of air, may also provide the answers to make this effective asthma drug safer.

"Try to figure out how we can potentially change the inflammatory response and retain the ability of that drug to open up your airways," said Buechner-Maxwell.

Another reason why horses are such a good fit when studying human asthma is that, other than humans, only horses experience chronic changes in their asthma as they get older.