AgriFutures Thoroughbred Horses Program Researcher Spotlight: Aleona Swegen


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Dr Aleona Swegen, researcher for the AgriFutures Thoroughbred Horse Program

Driven by industry experience and an appreciation for the thoroughbred horses industry Dr Aleona Swegen, conjoint fellow at the Priority Research Centre for Reproductive Science University of Newcastle, is on the hunt to develop a new blood-based early pregnancy test for mares. We sat down with Dr Swegen to learn more about the project.

In three sentences or less, briefly outline the project.

This project will be using cutting edge mass spectrometry techniques (analytical techniques that measure the mass of different molecules within a sample) to compare the blood biochemistry of early pregnant and non-pregnant mares. The ultimate goal is to understand the differences between early pregnant and non-pregnant mares to identify biomarkers (or measurable biological characteristics) to form the basis of a rapid and simple early pregnancy test. A rapid and simple early pregnancy test will identify non-pregnant mares earlier than conventional ultrasound testing and allow these mares to re-enter the breeding cycle. We will also be using novel laboratory models to investigate the interactions between early embryos and the maternal environment in the horse, ultimately looking for ways to improve pregnancy rates and reduce the incidence of early embryo loss in mares.


Why is this research project important?

Currently the most common way to detect pregnancy in mares is by transrectal ultrasound at day 14 after breeding. If a mare is found to be not pregnant, she can be bred again in about a week after the scan, meaning every missed cycle delays foaling by three weeks. Foals born later in the season have been shown to yield lower prices at sales and not to perform as well as their slightly older counterparts. An early blood-based pregnancy test that can be performed quickly at the could allow non-pregnant mares to re-enter the breeding program more quickly and reduce this delay, ultimately avoiding some of the wastage and lost profits associated with suboptimal fertility in thoroughbred breeding.

We also know very little about the causes of subfertility and the high rates of early pregnancy loss in horses, studying the interactions between the early embryo and the maternal system will help us identify and prevent some of these problems.


Why did you get involved in the project? 

I joined Professor John Aitken’s lab in 2012 to do my PhD. Almost all the research at that time was focused on male fertility. I had worked in clinical veterinary practice in the Hunter so I knew first hand the struggles that mare owners and vets experienced on the ‘female side’ – high rates of early pregnancy loss and the growing demand for new pregnancy diagnostics.

This is a project I have wanted to do for a long time; I’ve spent several years thinking about the best possible approach and gradually planning out the project. I am thrilled to finally have the opportunity to get it under way and really focus in on the issue.

How will this research benefit the Thoroughbred horse industry? Are there any learnings beyond this industry? 

Developing a robust early pregnancy test and/or identifying a biomarker for pregnancy success will yield direct benefits to Thoroughbred breeding practice. Earlier pregnancy detection will mean earlier diagnosis of non-pregnant mares that can re-enter the breeding cycle earlier. This will reduce the economic losses associated with labour and keep of these mares during the ‘waiting period’ prior to pregnancy diagnosis.

For mares that fail to conceive on multiple cycles, the shorter timeframe will mean an additional chance to conceive in a given breeding season. We know foals born earlier in the season have been demonstrated to yield higher prices at yearling sales. Faster turnaround over the course of the season will ultimately mean more foals born closer to 1 August (the ‘horse’s birthday’), increasing profitability.

We’re excited to be using new methods and technology that are not usually available to equine and livestock industry research, in future it is possible that we could apply similar approaches to solve problems for other species in addition to the horse.


What’s the best piece of professional/career advice you’ve ever been given?

For me it has been remembering that our human brains evolved to be problem solvers – we will always have problems to solve, because we naturally seek them out. And nowhere more so than in scientific research! The best we can hope for, then, is to have good problems to solve. And this is so important for research – choosing a good problem to work on and making a project (or even a career!) out of it. I’ve found this advice very motivating as it reminds me about the essence of research, especially when I encounter challenges or when colleagues or students feel ‘stuck’ – it is great to remember that the challenges and problems are exactly why we are here to start with and to embrace them and move forward.


Read more about the AgriFutures Thoroughbred Horse Program

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