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USTA funds study to evaluate cobalt as PED in horses
Monday, August 24, 2015 - from the USTA Communications Department

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Columbus, OH --- The U.S. Trotting Association announced Monday that it will fund a research study by renowned equine researchers Dr. George Maylin from Morrisville State College in New York and Dr. Karyn Malinowski and Dr. Ken McKeever of Rutgers University in New Jersey to evaluate the effects of cobalt on red blood cell production (erythropoiesis) and performance enhancement in horses.

Dr. Maylin anticipates that the study will commence at the beginning of September.

“The purpose is to study the effects of cobalt on racehorses with the exercise physiology model used by Dr. McKeever to study drugs such as EPO,” explained Dr. Maylin. “It’s the only way to assess the pharmacological effects with this type of compound. It will be a dose-response study to see if some level of cobalt has an effect on performance.”

In a previous study funded by the USTA, the three researchers determined a baseline for what the normal levels of cobalt are in a Standardbred horse.

“Most of the research has established that the naturally occurring levels in a horse are below 25 ppb but occasionally can range as high as 70 ppb,” said USTA President Phil Langley in making the announcement. “The problem remains that, other than establishing the natural levels, little is really known about the effects of cobalt on horses when it is given in excessive amounts.”

Racing jurisdictions have set thresholds to regulate the use of cobalt because it is known to be toxic in humans. However, there is currently no scientific evidence to determine an appropriate threshold for horses because dose-response studies have not been reported.

“The recent action of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on cobalt pretty much reflects the actions taken in many racing jurisdictions and the prevailing thought is that a warning at readings in excess of the 25 ppb level and a more severe penalty when the results exceed 50 ppb will dramatically reduce any improper use of cobalt,” said Langley.

In addition, there have been no controlled studies to document the purported performance enhancing effects of cobalt. The goal of the proposed study is to test the hypothesis that cobalt administration will alter biochemical parameters related to red blood cell production as well as markers of exercise performance.

“The important questions are whether cobalt can dramatically improve a horse’s performance or is detrimental to the horse’s health,” added Langley. “That’s what this research aims to discover.”

Eight healthy, trained Standardbred mares will be used for this experiment. Before receiving any drug treatment, all animals will complete a series of baseline testing.

According to the study plan, 50 mg of cobalt (Co HCl in one liter of saline) will be administered at 9 a.m. on three consecutive days. Blood samples will be obtained before and at one, two, four and 24 hours after administration. Administration will commence seven days after the first Graded Exercise Test (GXT). Plasma and blood volume will be measured two days after the last dose of cobalt. A post administration GXT will be performed the next day.

Testing will be comprised of measurement of maximal aerobic capacity and markers of performance, measurement of plasma volume and blood volume as well as lactate, erythropoietin (EPO), thyroid hormones and various blood hematological factors.

Cobalt toxicity and its ability to increase red blood cell production in humans have been known for more than 50 years. Recently there has been renewed interest in cobalt as a performance enhancing drug (PED) in race horses and human athletes. The possible toxicity associated with its use as a PED has become a welfare concern in the horse industry.


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