Dr. Kenneth McKeever
Professor, Department of Animal Sciences, Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences
Dr. McKeever received his B.S. degree and M.S. degrees in Animal Science from California State Polytechnic University Pomona and Fresno State University. Following completion of his Masters he worked as the Assistant Manager of Post-Time Thoroughbred Ranch in Tulare, California. McKeever earned his Ph.D. in Animal Physiology at the University of Arizona where he also managed the University Horse Center and Quarter Horse breeding program. Upon completing his Ph.D. McKeever served a two-year stint as a National Academies of Sciences-National Research Council Resident Research Associate in the Cardiovascular Research Lab at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. From 1987 to 1994 Dr. McKeever developed and coordinated research at the Equine Exercise Physiology Lab at the Ohio State University. In 1995 he joined the Faculty in the Department of Animal Sciences at Rutgers University as an Associate Professor and proceeded to build, develop, and coordinated one of the most active Equine Exercise Physiology laboratories in the country.
Dr. McKeever earned the rank of Full Professor in 2009 and currently serves as Associate Director of the Rutgers University Equine Science Center. On a basic level his research has focused on comparative exercise and cardiovascular physiology with a particular interest in the effects of aging on the integration of the cardiovascular, renal, and endocrine systems in the control of blood pressure, blood volume and fluid and electrolyte balance. On an applied level, the research has focused on the effects of performance enhancing practices on the physiological responses of the equine athlete. In particular, recent projects have examined the effects of various drugs including clenbuterol, enalapril, Epogen, ephedra, and various potential alkalinizing agents.
Most recently, McKeever and a team of colleagues and students from multiple departments and multiple institutions have partnered with the Department of Defense to examine the anti-inflammatory and performance effects of various food extracts. Those studies have demonstrated that flavanols in cranberry and black tea reduce exercise-induced inflammation, a finding that may lead to reduced reliance on NSAID drugs in human warfighters as well as equine athletes. The key to the success of this research and other studies conducted at Rutgers are the many physiological similarities between horses and humans, such as the cardiovascular, muscular, thermoregulatory (sweating), immune, and endocrine responses that make the horse an ideal intermediate animal model for conducting those studies. Just as important though, is the athletic nature of the horse and their natural desire to run which makes it easy to conduct controlled studies in the RU high speed treadmill laboratory. But the above is just one area of focus by the Rutgers team.
Thirteen years ago Dr. McKeever and his colleagues conducted the first treadmill studies of aged horses. Since then Rutgers has published more information on the aged horse than any other institution in the world. Those studies are just part of the 190 book chapters, and papers, and more than 60 abstracts that have advanced our understanding of the athletic horse. Over the last 32 years McKeever and his collaborating students and colleagues have charted new ground in a number of areas of endocrinology demonstrating the effects of exercise and training on the hormones that control blood pressure and blood volume. Those studies increase our understanding of the mechanism behind high blood pressure. Studies have also looked at the hormones associated with the control of energy balance and appetite with application towards understanding anorexia and obesity in humans and horses.
Finally, many of the studies conducted over the years have examined the effects of various drugs on performance. Those partnerships with the NJ State Police Equine Drug Detection Laboratory have yielded critical information that has been used in formulating new detection methods. The research has also been an asset for a number of court cases as well as in policy formulation by the Racing Commission in New Jersey as well as other states. What excites McKeever most is that his efforts are training the next generation of integrative and regulatory physiologists who follow in the footsteps of all of those who have used the horse as an animal model and exercise as one of their tools to make new and important discoveries benefiting horses and humans.
Medical research has benefited from using the horse for well over a century. In 1898 the vaccine for diphtheria was developed by Emil Adolf von Behring and Paul Erlich using the horse. Both were Nobel Prize winners for their later work. In 1919 the mechanisms of immunity were discovered using the horse as well as the Guinea pig and rabbit. In 1933 the vaccine for tetanus was developed using the horse. And in 1975 the interaction between tumor viruses and genetic material was discovered using the horse, chicken, monkey and mouse. In 1955 Hugo Theorel won the Nobel Prize for his work on the nature and mode of action of oxidative enzymes using the horse.
From the early days of medical and physiological research to the present, a great deal of work has been done on the horse during exercise and exertion. In 1872 Eadweard Muybridge proved that the horse leaves the ground when galloping. In the 1880s, the University of Pennsylvania developed hundreds of photographic prints of animal locomotion, including that of the horse. Today we use high speed cinematography and computerized analysis to study horse locomotion and gait.
Using a treadmill, German physiologist Nathan Zuntz was the first to document increased cardiac output during exercise using a horse named Babylon. In 1933, Werner Huxdorff studied the energy cost of work in draft horses using a movable calorimeter system. He measured the economy of various gaits that horses use. Samuel Brody at the University of California and University of Missouri published hundreds of papers on the energetic of horses, including a study of the relative economy of the horse and tractor. He concluded at the time that the efficiency of horses exceeded that of the tractor.
Dr. Sune Persson of Sweden is considered the father of equine exercise physiology, the area that I study at Rutgers. He used a high-speed treadmill, conducting a series of landmark studies in the 1960s. There are treadmill laboratories in a number of universities in the U.S., including Kansas State University, Oklahoma State University, the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University. Horses readily perform exercise on treadmills as opposed to other animals that don’t take to it as well. As a result, we can simulate racing with high-intensity exercise tests and can simulate endurance exercise.
Horses provide an excellent research model, enabling us to obtain blood pressure during exercise and perform cardiac catheterization during exercise, which is impractical in humans. This led to early cardiac sensor development using horses at Tuskegee. We can take sequential muscle biopsies of horses during exercise as well as blood samples without affecting the cardio-vascular system.
Horses are physiologically similar to humans in the way they control their cardiac function, blood pressure, blood volume and distribution of blood flow. Their muscle responses and ability to regulate body temperature are also similar. The similarities also extend to endocrine response to exercise, aging, appetite control and reproduction. Horses’ immune and inflammatory responses are also the same. As a result of the similarities, the effects of training on horses are similar to humans.
The Rutgers Equine Science Center has partnerships with the New Jersey State Police Laboratory, trainers, clinicians and owners in a number of states as well as the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Army. In addition to horses helping humans through research, they help in another big way — through therapeutic riding and the countless interactions that make our relationship with these noble animals all the more rewarding.
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