Sometimes you just luck into things…and meeting Christa Lafayette of Etalon Diagnostics was one of those happy moments of fate! I mean…come on. Horse DNA tests that are quick, easy to understand and constantly evolving more markers? It’s a VERY exciting idea at a very exciting time. When I met Christa at Menlo Charity Horse Show I had no idea what I was in for. What a pleasant surprise to learn about the work they were doing and how that work was helping people and their horses! Many phone calls later (and a few DNA samples later), I knew I had to share Etalon Diagnostics with you. Note: I will be doing a write up in the future on my two DNA samples tested and what the results were, so keep an eye out for those!
What is your professional background?
My background is in surgical and behavioral models in preclinical therapeutics for translation into human medicine. That’s a fancy way of saying I develop better and safer ways to test new medicines and medical devices in the biotech sector.
As a scientist, I’m really into data and predictive models. As a horse person, I’m really really into my horses (aren’t we all?). About 10 years ago, I sent in my first horse hair samples to a lab. I had my first experience with DNA testing for my own stallions and found it to be less exciting and thorough than I had thought it would be. It was pretty limited, expensive, slow, and some of the results were vague. With no one interested or available to guide me through the process (or even talk to me on the phone), I started to do some homework to figure out what it all meant. I found the whole mystery and expense pretty irritating. As a horse person I’m used to spending money unexpectedly, but I hate to guess and I absolutely hate to wait.
Fast forward a couple of years and there were some drastic changes in technology. I realized those changes might just be what we needed to take the pain out of testing and make this experience better. If approached correctly, it might even lead to a learning platform. I gathered a bunch of my nerdiest friends (who also happen to be horse people in addition to being scientists) and we came up with an experiment based around a question:
What would happen if we were to design a platform that tested for many many genetic parameters all at once and then we simply tested all horses for all traits? What might we learn?
…and that’s how it started; a bunch of nerdy, impatient horse people who set up a crazy experiment to see what we could do with a bit of horse hair and some fancy, new scientific ideas. And then an amazing thing happened...it worked REALLY well.
The ultimate goal for Etalon Diagnostics actually has two parts –
Goal 1 – In developing science and accelerating equine genetic discovery, we want to include the people who know the horses best – their owners and riders. By investigating horse owner claims and listening to their stories while also exploring the horse’s DNA we improve our chances of disease and trait discovery together. It’s a way to “crowdsource” science and unlock secrets to improve the lives of our beloved equines and their human guardians!
Goal 2 – As in biotech, all human medicine begins in the lab and, like it or not, at some point involves animals. Horses are unique among companion animals simply in the way they are kept and competed. By studying our horses, their performance, their genetics, and the owner input, we create a natural sort of living lab in which we can discover genetics that will later translate to the human condition – all without a single animal ever living in a laboratory. This platform is intended to be a cruelty-free form of medical/genetic testing for future human indication.
What do you do with the data you gather while doing panels?
The data is used in many ways depending upon the needs of the horse/owner/veterinarian/registries as we work with them. The basic testing (where a client purchases a test panel and sends in hair) is run on a large diagnostic part of the platform initially. The raw data (with the raw DNA values) is then reviewed by a scientist and compared to several controls. Next, a comprehensive report is composed and the results are provided to the owner. We make a special point of reaching out to as many clients as we can to review the data with them to ensure they not only understand, but that the results make sense. Those conversations often include investigating unknown or additional traits the owner has noticed (such as a novel white gene, or a suspected heritable trait, health concern, etc.). We use that conversation and information to amass similar questions and samples and circle back to owners to see if we can’t solve the mystery of, say, the novel white, or perhaps, why these horses have “X” health issues, and so on. Much of the raw DNA (separate from the owner/trainer or horse information) is then compiled for larger research projects where we might conduct larger unbiased tallies. For instance, we might want to see how many of the samples tested positive for “Warmblood Fragile Foal Syndrome” are actually “Warmbloods” – the answer might surprise you, I know it surprised us!
In the early stages, Etalon was a labor of love. But as with many “hobbies” it rapidly began consuming my life. It is now my main focus. Although I’d like to say I work on Etalon 40 hours a week it is probably closer to 80 or 90 (but I’m a willing victim). Of all of the biotech’s I’ve worked with, this one is by far the most fun. The speed of discovery and science in this field is mind-boggling, and of course…there are horses…lots and lots of horses. #DreamJob
How do you decide what DNA items to develop/add to your panels?
Some things/traits are easier to find than others. Given any trait we may be looking for, sometimes we have an idea of where to look in the genome based on function and phenotype. Those types of traits are much easier to uncover and we try to pick those off as quickly as possible. Other traits are much more complex and may not only be in unknown/unsuspecting regions of the genome, but may also have multiple genes or environmental factors in addition to “on or off” switches. Those types of traits are ongoing in the background and require many times the number of samples and precise parameters to find. Bottom line, if you can breed for it, then it’s genetic. If it’s genetic, then given enough samples and data, we can find it. Some might take days or weeks and others may take months or years, but we will keep looking.
Absolutely! For those of you who attending WEG, you might already have heard about our Ancestry service. We’ve also recently announced that we’re adding a test for Recurrent Laryngeal Neuropathy (RLN) or “Roaring” to the DNA Minipanel PLUS along with some other new traits including “Size/Height at Maturity”, laminitis risk, etc. We will keep adding more and definitely want to hear what other services folks would like to see. Tell us!
What are the most challenging aspects of running Etalon Diagnostics? What has been your biggest hurdle?
Most challenging: Staying focused on the process and developing quality despite the temptation to run off in a million different directions. It’s critical to keep our process, platform and methods highly accurate and useful so the data will gift us with discoveries going forward into the future (“us” being the horse people). Collaboration is the key to this project and it’s often hard to work with a group of really bright people because everyone has amazing ideas and interests, so keeping focused on the mission can be a lot more work than one would imagine.
Biggest hurdle: So many politically correct answers spring to mind, like “funding”, or “being female scientists” and entrepreneur’s issues, growing the business, etc. but that’s just not our style.
No, for this I can only speak personally, and it would have to be “not feeding the trolls“. Anytime you work hard to build something that matters, someone is bound to feel it’s their job to tear you down. As anyone who has ever put themselves out there knows, there are trolls. While it bothered me a bit at first to see the amusing stories and statements the trolls had created about me or Etalon or any of my teammates, their actions only help us get better, faster and stronger. Where it really does infuriate me, however, is to see them tearing down and bullying horse owners who are in pursuit of knowledge, education and discovery. Trolls act the way they do because of some sorry self-loathing, boredom or other ill-understood dark side of human nature sometimes displayed under the cover of internet anonymity. Still, I hate to see them destroying natural curiosity and the willingness to question in others. It’s critical for people to ask questions, to discuss things, explore, and to try and learn at their own speed. Trolls feed on drama, animosity and misery. They exist to stomp on others, make misery, and make themselves feel important – don’t feed them. Carry on with your questions, your curiosity and your discovery and let them live out their dark little lives behind the comfort of an untraceable keyboard.
Our team would like to see Etalon change the way people see research, science and genetics through their own experiences with the companion animals they so love and engage with. Learning in your own environment (your barn or your home) with experiences that you can really understand, see and relate to (seeing your horse’s genetic results reflected in their color, health and behavior) can really make a message stick: The science is real. Use it, contribute to it, and help it grow into the tool set that your kids [and their horses] may one day use.
Anyone with a horse! This platform was designed by horse owners for horse owners. Our entire team is horsey and we all have different questions from simple health and fitness questions to temperament and performance. For breeders, we want to avoid disease and create beautiful colors to go with stellar movement and temperament. Those of us that are fierce competitors take the information and use it as a leg up on the competition. Horses are such a commitment, both financially and emotionally, that it just makes sense to use every tool within your reach to make the experience and outcome the best it can be.
What is your horse story?
While I’d like to respond with this amazing story about finding a rescue horse, patching it up and saving it, the true story is much simpler. I’m obsessed. I hit the ground that way (and yes I believe there is a gene for that!). My family did not have horses growing up, but that never stopped me from demanding Breyer’s as a toddler (I can’t imagine why anyone would want a stupid doll…). I spent many long days at school doodling horses on my notebooks and daydreaming or reading about them. Attempts to live the dream often resulted in some pretty questionable actions, i.e. ducking under barbed wire fences and riding random, unknown horses in a field and dragging my reluctant, worried cousin along for the “ride.” I rode Polo in college (not very well, because I was concerned I’d pop my horse with the mallet). All the while, I had a fierce interest in science and medicine which eventually led me to biotech. Life went on after college Polo ponies and, at one point I realized I could actually, FINALLY afford a horse. I went out looking for a 15 year old, well-broke, amateur’s gelding (a nice, reasonable, safe choice) so of course I came home with an 8 year old, breeding Friesian stallion. I’ve since had many horses and tons of riding and ground work lessons. While the never-ending search for my perfect jumper continues, my Friesian helps me vet them all. He is magical. But, then, aren’t they all?