This is the third and final installment of a three-part series on the growing field of genomics and bioformatics in the Silicon66 region, which includes Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico and Arizona. The series included an examination of genetic research being done at Oklahoma’s Langston University to help goat producers, and a look the work of Agric-Bioformatics.
Lexi Palmer can tell when a horse is suffering, how it nips and bucks when the pain seizes up the hindquarters and the muscles begin to waste away.
She recognizes how hard it is for horse owners to look into the big brown eyes of their companion horse and not be able to communicate to their animal why it is in pain, why it will always be in pain and why it will eventually die because of a muscle wasting disease that has no cure.
“I saw an episode and it was terrible,” said Palmer. “You could look in the horse’s eyes and see she was tired, could see she was in pain. The horses are your best friends, and you are so in tune with that horse, so you are in pain with them. It’s like watching a family member slowly deteriorate, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Horse owners and breeders can, however, now test their horses for the marker that indicates they carry the gene for Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy type 2 (PSSM2) and another similar disease that are common in horses like thoroughbreds and quarter horses, thanks to a New Mexico-based startup called EquiSeq, Inc.
EquiSeq began in February of 2015, and for Palmer, the company’s 23-year-old CEO, the job is more a passion for helping the equine community than it is about making bank. A horse lover and rider herself, Palmer said the research at EquiSeq is changing the horse industry in only the best ways, despite some push-back from breeders.
Researchers at EquiSeq have identified a genetic variant that is associated with PSSM2. The genetic variant alters a gene that is required in skeletal muscle. Before, PSSM2 could only be determined when symptoms of exercise intolerance occurred and the horses tested negative for a genetic variant of glycogen synthase associated with PSSM1 (GYS1-R309H or P1).
Developing the genetic testing for this specific type of disease in horses wasn’t exactly what EquiSeq founder Paul Szauter planned to do. After teaching genomics at one university, he decided he would launch his own company that could quickly and cheaply sequence a genome using University of New Mexico technology.
He then branched out into a business accelerator program in order to start a new company with a different model. Working through ABQid, a bootcamp and accelerator program for entrepreneurs in New Mexico, Szauter participated in “Idea Hack” sessions to develop a workable innovation.
Through ABQid, Szauter’s Equiseq, which develops genetic horse tests for breeders, won first place at the 2015 New Mexico Pitch Fiesta, an annual competition in which aspiring entrepreneurs present their business ideas in two-minute “elevator pitches.” A panel of four serial entrepreneurs judged the presentations, awarding a first-place cash prize of $400 to Equiseq, a graduate of the ABQid startup accelerator program.
“Investor interest started to heat up in the other company that was housing EquiSeq activity, and we had to spin it off, but they said I couldn’t be CEO of two companies,” Szauter said. “So that’s when Lexi walked in and became the CEO.”
Palmer had just graduated from college and was desperate to do any job that was not a typical 9 to 5.
“I loved horses and did a lot of riding, so I knew a lot of people in the industry,” she said. “Paul asked me if I knew anything about science. I said, ‘I know absolutely nothing about science, but I’ll learn.’”
And she did. Several times a week, Palmer and Szauter sat down together to unravel the science behind genomics. Szauter had the lingo and technical information and Palmer translated that sophisticated knowledge into easy-to-understand language for consumers.
“We picked a problem that we thought would be a good place to start, which was a genetic muscle disorder that was common in quarter horses, and the age of onset is after the usual breeding age of most horses,” Szauter said.
“There is no way to eliminate it from quarter horses without a genetic test.”
No one had discovered which genes cause the disorder, but Szauter and his team found they could sequence horse genomes to pinpoint which gene mutation caused the disorder. While researching the disease, the EquiSeq team stumbled across a Facebook group for owners of horses with the disease.
Members of the group began sharing information and DNA samples with the company, and EquiSeq had DNA samples from 250 horses from which to launch their research.
“We found the gene pretty fast, in about three weeks,” Szauter said. “The data we collect is sick. It makes astronomical look like a puny word. In the first five months, we collected 1.5 terrabytes of data. Comparing what we have to the public horse database, they have 5 million variants and we have 20 million variants.”
The company was able to develop a test that identifies horses at risk for developing PSSM2 before they show any symptoms.
“This will help change the equine industry. Our goal is to make our own test obsolete by having horses born without these diseases,” said Palmer. “Our clients are breeders and breed organizations, because that starts the domino effect.”
Identifying horses with the genetic mutation for PSSM2 means those horses could be removed from the breeding pool, thus removing that genetic variant from future horses. The company is now working on a second test for a similar disorder that affects thoroughbreds.
Future plans include developing a test for a neuromuscular disease called shivers and being able to offer full gene sequencing for horses.
“We have had some push back because there are those who will suffer financial harm,” Palmer said. “If 20 percent of your stock has the gene variant, then you lose money by not breeding that 20 percent. But in the long run, it’s not about me or Paul or the company. It’s about the horse community. It’s about breeding out these diseases.”