Don't horse around with cultures

11 July 2017

Emily Grout

3MT Masters winner Emily Grout, researching new treatments for horses.

Waikato masters student Emily Grout has been carrying out research that will improve the diagnosis and subsequent management and treatment of horses.

Emily was the winner of the University of Waikato’s three-minute thesis (3MT) for masters students, where entrants are required to outline their research in three minutes, using only one slide. She called her presentation ‘Don’t horse around with cultures’.

Her research involves the use of a molecular method called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for the detection of disease causing bacteria. This is then compared to the traditional diagnostic technique of microbiological culture, which requires growing the bacteria over a few days. “PCR is now widely used as a diagnostic tool in clinical settings, especially in human medicine, but has limited use in the veterinary settings,” Emily says. “I’m attempting to prove that if PCR detection was possible, diagnoses could be carried out in a matter of hours, allowing faster treatments with the appropriate drugs. This is especially relevant as the traditional culture can take up to a week, and by that time the animal has either recovered or the infection has worsened.”

Emily says she chose this masters project because it was “really interesting” and she loves the challenge associated with diagnostic work. “You can see there’s a problem and you choose a particular technique to solve it. I also like the fact this project could be expanded to develop different diagnostic systems or be applied to other animals.”

The New Zealand Equine Research Foundation has supported the research along with equine vets from the Waikato. The vets send in samples from sick horses, from which she extracts the microbial DNA present from samples and uses this to identify which pathogens are present using PCR. “I’d then relay the result to the relevant vet in a matter of hours, allowing confirmation of diagnosis and immediate treatment guidance.”

Condensing her research down to three minutes for the competition proved to be a challenge for Emily; to explain what she was doing, how she was doing it and why, without being too scientific. “I spent almost a month refining and editing my presentation until I reached a version I was happy with – one that included all the information but was clear enough that my mum could understand it.”

Emily says the equine industry in particular will benefit from this type of research. “My whole project is driven by the fact that New Zealand equine industry is so profitable and it's a shame to see suffering and sometimes deaths occurring from infections which can easily be treated once the organisms causing infection have been identified and the correct treatment is applied.”

Emily is from Gisborne and began her BSc in 2013 at the University of Waikato, majoring in Biological Sciences. She is currently undertaking her MSc (Research) majoring in Genetics because she really enjoyed studying it as part of her BSc and wanted to apply what she had learnt and carry out research in that area.

Her win in the 3MT means she will be competing in the national inter-university 3MT challenge in August in Wellington.