Animal models have been developed to investigate specific components of asthmatic airway inflammation, hyper-responsiveness or remodelling. However, all of these aspects are rarely observed in the same animal. Heaves is a naturally occurring disease of horses that combines these features. It is characterized by stable dust-induced inflammation, bronchospasm and remodelling. The evaluation of horses during well-controlled natural antigen exposure and avoidance in experimental settings allows the study of disease mechanisms in the asymptomatic and symptomatic stages, an approach rarely feasible in humans. Also, the disease can be followed over several years to observe the cumulative effect of repeated episodes of clinical exacerbation or to evaluate long-term treatment, contrasting most murine asthma models. This model has shown complex gene and environment interactions, the involvement of both innate and adaptive responses to inflammation, and the contribution of bronchospasm and tissue remodelling to airway obstruction, all occurring in a natural setting. Similarities with the human asthmatic airways are well described and the model is currently being used to evaluate airway remodelling and its reversibility in ways that are not possible in people for ethical reasons. Tools including antibodies, recombinant proteins or gene arrays, as well as methods for sampling tissues and assessing lung function in the horse are constantly evolving to facilitate the study of this animal model. Research perspectives that can be relevant to asthma include the role of neutrophils in airway inflammation and their response to corticosteroids, systemic response to pulmonary inflammation, and maintaining athletic capacities with early intervention.
© 2011 The Authors. Respirology © 2011 Asian Pacific Society of Respirology.