Equine Robo-Gut Helps OVC Researchers Study Gastrointestinal Diseases In Horses

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Originally published by Ontario Veterinary College – June 14, 2021

A University of Guelph researcher is advancing knowledge into prevention and early detection of gastrointestinal diseases in horses using a mechanical replica of a horse’s GI system to mimic equine digestion and disease.

Dr. Luis Arroyo, professor in the Department of Clinical Studies at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, uses the horse robo-gut to understand how various food compounds are digested. By manipulating the mechanical gut, he can observe how certain GI diseases affect the animal and suggest potential treatments.

“The robo-gut offers us ways to understand mechanism of disease and potential treatment options for our patients, as well as helping us learn more about early detection and prevention of GI diseases,” says Arroyo.

Researchers are particularly interested in the gut microbiome, where abundant and diverse bacterial communities can help ensure overall health.

This system is based on the groundbreaking human robo-gut created earlier by Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology in the College of Biological Science. She studies the GI tracts of people with ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease.

By adjusting the model-gut’s humidity and temperature, for instance, researchers can mimic gut conditions in a live horse.

“Through this manipulation, we can encourage a horse gut microbiome to thrive in the robo-gut,” says Arroyo. “Native microbiota play an important role in the digestion, absorption and fermentation of nutrients to maintain a healthy state.”

Horses are hind-gut fermenters that require native bacterial colonies in the cecum (the junction between the small and large intestines) to ferment roughage, extract nutrients and produce short-chain fatty acids that are absorbed for energy.

When an imbalance occurs in these intestinal bacterial communities — which can happen due to an overabundance of potentially harmful gut bacteria — the animal’s health can be thrown off. This is also where GI diseases, such as colic and colitis, arise.

Colic encompasses myriad GI conditions that cause abdominal pain. Colitis is inflammation of the mucosal lining of the large intestine (cecum and or colon), and can result in diarrhea and colic.

“A healthy gut microbiome is essential for the proper systemic functioning of the horse’s entire body,” says Arroyo. “By looking at horse health holistically, we are able to prevent local and systemic ailments from flourishing.”

Using the horse robo-gut, researchers can analyze patient-specific problems and see the issue underlying GI disease.

This research is funded by the Ontario Equestrian Member Equine Research Fund.