Blacksburg, Va. -- Sharon Witonsky, associate professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, has received the Pfizer Award for Research Excellence for her work with Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), a neurologic disease that affects horses. Witonsky is both a clinician of the equine field service and a research scientist pursuing EPM and other infectious disease research.
The Pfizer award, established in 1985, is a nationally recognized award sponsored by Pfizer Animal Health, a division of healthcare giant, Pfizer, Inc. The purpose of this award is to "foster innovative research, on which the scientific advancement of the profession depends, by recognizing outstanding research effort and productivity."
Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis is caused by an infectious protozoal parasite known as Sarcocystis neurona. Opossums are the known carriers and horses are believed to contract the disease by grazing on forage contaminated with the opossum feces. The parasite migrates to the brain through unknown mechanisms.
While more than 50 percent of all horses in the United States are believed to be exposed to this disease, only 0.5 to 1 percent develop clinical signs. The reason for this selective infection is unclear, according to Witonksy. However, the effect of the disease on horses that are afflicted can be devastating. Equine patients can suffer a range of neurologic problems including behavioral changes, ataxia or clumsiness, muscle atrophy, and death. Over the past several years, diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccinations for EPM have been developed and Witonsky is attempting to improve upon those.
Specifically, Witonsky hopes to achieve three goals with her research. The first is to discover the mechanism by which Sarcocystis neurona is able to breech the blood/brain barrier and affect the horse. The second is to learn more about th
Contact: Jeff Douglas