Ex-racing horses and dogs donate plasma to make antivenom, treat young or sick animals | Ralph-Lauren

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A group of former racing animals destined to be put down are the unlikely heroes behind the antivenoms protecting humans against some of Australia’s deadliest native creatures.

At Plasvacc, in Kalbar in Queensland’s Scenic Rim, a young veterinarian is injecting venom into a herd of donor horses.

It’s a complex process. The amount of venom given to the animals must start at a very low dose, so it takes almost a full year of monthly injections before they build up an immune response and produce the required antibodies without suffering adverse side effects.

“They get a single injection every time I’m here, and they get a specific vial of venom that’s matched to their ID,” vet Amy Neale said.

“Often when they come in they get a bit of feed while they’re here and then it’s all over and done with quickly, so it’s a pretty easy process for them.”

Eventually, blood products, such as plasma and pure red blood cells, are taken from the envenomated horses and made into antivenom at labs run by biotech company Seqirus.

A polystyrene tub of blood bags filled with light brown plasma.
Horses can donate up to 17 litres of plasma.(ABC Landline: Courtney Wilson)

“We have 11 antivenom products that we make, including covering the five top land snakes of Australia, such as taipan, black snake and death adder,” said Cassandra Smoult, the company’s director of products of national significance.

“We also produce antivenoms for redback spiders, the funnel web spider and also for venomous sea creatures, including the sea snake, box jellyfish and stonefish.”

The process for collecting equine blood and plasma products is remarkably similar to humans.

With horses as donors though, it can take the best part of a day to complete a collection, and just one animal can produce up to 17 litres of plasma.

“Anyone who’s donated blood would have seen this process before,” Plasvacc CEO Andrew Macarthur said.

“We spin off the plasma and then return the red cells and the white cells and the fluids to the donor, whatever the donor is, and then that plasma has the antibodies in it that go to the heart of the matter.”

Plasma pays off

Animal plasma products are widely used and in high demand.

At Grandview Stud, a thoroughbred facility in nearby Peak Crossing, administering equine plasma is commonplace during foaling season.

A brown mare and foal stand in a paddock.
Plasma can help boost foals’ immunity.(ABC Landline: Courtney Wilson)

“One of the big reasons we give plasma is because the foals can only get immunity from colostrum that they get from the mare,” vet Jaco Joubert said.

“So if either the colostrum is not of good quality or if the mare had colostrum leaking before foaling, then that foal will not get immunity enough to prevent it from getting ill.”

The cost associated with breeding thoroughbreds means owners are generally willing to do whatever it takes to ensure a foal both survives and thrives.

“It’s just that peace of mind, because things can go downhill very quickly with a foal,” stud owner Michael Grieve said.

A man in a purple shirt stands by a brown horse.
Michael Grieve uses plasma to give his thoroughbred foals “the best chance” at life.(ABC Landline: Courtney Wilson)

There is also plenty of demand for canine plasma.

“It’s pretty critical in our work for things like snake bites, rat bait toxicity, even little puppies that are fading and dying; it’s used all the time in practice,” Dr Neale said.

The dogs donate once a month under the supervision of a vet.

“Each dog has an IV catheter placed so they get IV fluids into their system, so obviously as plasma is coming out we’re replacing the fluid, same as if you go for human collection getting plasma taken,” Dr Neale said.

A woman in vet scrubs stands by a bed where an anaesthetised greyhound sleeps.
Amy Neale works with donor dogs and horses.(ABC Landline: Courtney Wilson)

A new life after racing

Plasvacc is home to about 100 dogs and 60 horses.

They are almost all ex-racing animals, so the opportunity to serve as donors is literally another lease on life for them. There are also some foxhounds that have been specifically bred as donor animals.

“All the donors that you’ve seen today, without us, will all be euthanised,” Mr Macarthur said.

A not-for-profit company, Anubis Retirement, facilitates the rehoming of animals where possible after they’ve finished donating.

A man in a white shirt and hat stands in a paddock with horses behind him.
Andrew Macarthur has been with the company since its inception.(ABC Landline: Courtney Wilson)

While the production of animal plasma products makes up the bulk of day-to-day work at Plasvacc, research and development is the company’s true passion.

“During 2020, we were approached to do some work overseas with COVID plasma,” Mr Macarthur said.

“The use of plasma therapy in the treatment of disease in humans is just getting bigger and bigger.”

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.

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