Published: 10 November 2022

What can horses teach us about cardiac conditions?

Dr Kamalan Jeevaratnam shares how veterinary research at the University of Surrey is helping to assist with earlier diagnosis of atrial fibrillation in humans. 

When Danish footballer Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch during the European Championships, shockwaves went round the world. How could someone so young and fit suffer a heart attack? 

Those of us with longer memories immediately recalled a similar incident involving Fabrice Muamba almost a decade before. Again, a young man in his prime had a cardiac arrest on the pitch. What caused it?  

From a medical perspective, understanding the individual causes of cardiac arrests was clearly crucial – but equally, we want to learn more about how we could prevent such incidents in the future. The difficulty is that in humans, these incidents are so rare that we have a very small sample size to work with.  

But widen the lens, and you find another group of supremely fit athletes that have also been susceptible to sudden cardiac failure - racehorses. Sadly, there are numerous cases every year of these magnificent animals collapsing during, or after, a race with heart failure. The main cause is later discovered to be atrial fibrillation, something that is treatable if recognised – but very hard to spot.  

One Health, One Medicine 

At the School of Veterinary Medicine, we’re now researching the development of cardiac disease in racehorses to try and reduce the risk of heart failure. And to bring us back to Christian Eriksen, those findings can also be used to assist with earlier diagnosis of atrial fibrillation in humans. 

This project is just one of many examples of our One Health, One Medicine approach, where human and veterinary medicine complement each other and students from both disciplines learn from and alongside each other. 

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