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Sarcocystis fayeri

cyst microscopic cropSarcocystosis is one of the most frequent infections of animals, the organisms are found in the muscles and the central nervous system! There are, perhaps, 196 species of Sarcocystis, yet the complete life cycle is only known for 26 of them. Sarcocystis require a prey-predator, 2 host, relationship to survive. Each host supports different stages of the life cycle. Hosts vary for each species of Sarcocystis.  Intermediate hosts support several species of Sarcocystis, each species use different definitive hosts.

People get sarcocystosis, two species use people as the definitive host.  Humans also serve as intermediate (or aberrant hosts) for several other species. Raw beef can infect you with S. hominis and raw pork can give you S. suihominis. Gastrointestinal symptoms are present when Sarcocystis cause disease in people  definitively hosting the parasite. Muscle pain is reported in people that serve Sarcocystis as an intermediate host. Most of the time people are asymptomatic with muscular sarcocystosis. People can get sick from an enterotoxin associated with Sarcocystis that infect horse muscles. if horse meat is uncooked.

Horses get sarcocystosis from dogs, the organism causing infections is S. equicanis (bertrami). In the US the horse-infecting organism is named S. fayeri. Donkeys harbor S. asinus, but experiments may show that this is actually S. fayeri. The visible difference in equicanis (bertrami) and fayeri is the thickness of cyst walls in muscles observed under the microscope. Our picture above is fayeri,  a thick-walled sarcocyst.  S. bertrami forms a thin-walled cyst. Dogs shed infective betrami organisms 8-10 days after eating infected muscle tissue. Horses eat the organisms from dog feces-contaminated feed.  It takes two to three weeks before signs appear in horses.  Signs include fever, neurological signs, apathy, and inappetence  a couple of months after infection. Muscle enzymes can be elevated in infected horses and increased enzymes can be measured in blood samples.

Sarcocystis fayeri cysts are found in skeletal muscles and the heart.  Ten and 25 days after infection (two waves of organisms are released from the gut) the developing parasites are found in arteries of the heart, brain, and kidney.  Muscle cysts (sarcocysts) are first seen at 55 days .  And by 77 days the muscle tissue can infect dogs to start the cycle again. We are taught that S. fayeri is only mildly pathogenic, horses develop anemia and fever after infections and some horses may have a stiff gait. More virulent isolates can cause inflammation of muscles and, in one case, the horse developed autoimmune anemia.  People that eat raw horse meat can get food poisoning, this is due to a toxin associated with the cysts.  A fetus can be infected by S. fayeri by crossing the placenta, so foals can be born with mature cysts in their muscles.

Malnourished horses show clinical muscle inflammation (myositis) and muscle atrophy that can be associated with S. fayeri. Muscle cysts are usually unassociated with clinical signs or muscle inflammation, leading to conclusions that fayeri infections are benign. Most clinicians agree S. fayeri isn’t an issue in horses.  However, there are some researchers that think S. fayeri should be considered in horses with neuromuscular disease. Scientists at UC Davis examined muscle tissues from horses with and without a history of neuromuscular disease.  They found an association, but not statistical significance, between disease and cysts.  More horses with neuromuscular disease had S. fayeri cysts when compared to the number of cysts found in horses that died from other causes.

We decided to look at the problem a different way.  While UC Davis looked at cysts, we chose to look for S. fayeri antitoxin in the serum of horses. An advantage to antitoxin analysis is that the test is performed in the live horse.  We found that 24% of normal horses had antitoxin in their serum. We also found that S. neurona antibodies were more often associated with neuromuscular disease in horses  than S. fayeri antitoxin (antibodies against the toxin released from cysts). That said, horses were more often infected with both species of Sarcocystis, not just one strain.

Horses infected with S. neurona and S. fayeri were more likely to show disease. We looked at inflammation using CRP (C-reactive protein) and found that CRP was detected in horses with and without apparent disease. We did find that significantly more horses with neuromuscular disease had an elevated CRP when compared to normal horses (p= .0135).  However, the data we needed to link the UC Davis study and ours was missing.  We needed to show  the relationship of antitoxin found in horses (our test) with sarcocysts found on histopathological slides (the gold-standard test for fayeri-sarcocystosis).

We examined three tissues (muscle tissue from the heart, esophagus, and skeletal muscle) from thirty-two horses (that’s a big number in horse studies) and measured the presence of antitoxin.  Our results confirmed that our serum test was almost the same as the results you would get if a full post-mortem exam was conducted. Also, in our study the infected horses were asymptomatic.

The conclusions thus far are that S. fayeri can be detected pre-mortem and should be considered in horses with signs of sarcocystosis or neuromuscular disease that has no other cause.  Also, horses with neuromuscular disease are more likely to have an elevated CRP.  In our S. fayeri study horses did have elevated CRP values but the inflammation was associated with other gastrointestinal parasites, not EMS (equine muscular sarcocystosis).

Why are we still interested in S. fayeri? Certainly our results support the strain of S. fayeri  infecting our 32 horses was non-virulent and support the view of most clinicians that S. fayeri may not be an issue in most horses, just some of them.

For us, it’s about the toxin.  The toxin is an actin-depolymerizing factor (ADF).  Another Apicomplexan, Toxoplasma gondii, has a very similar ADF. The TG-ADF can protect lab animals against T. gondii infections. Interestingly, some animals with lethal S. neurona infections also were infected with T. gondii. The difference between protection (mice) versus no-ADF protection (sea otters) could be stage of infection (with TG), ,strain-virulence, or something we didn't think of yet.

Can S. fayeri-ADF protect against S. neurona infections in horses? Is ADF species specific? Is ADF a virulence factor or even a survival factor for the organism? Are there cyst-producing S. fayeri organisms that don't produce ADF? Does S. neurona produce an ADF? And, can a S. neurona be incorporated into a fayeri sarcocyst? These are all questions to be answered by experiment.

Here is our opinion. It is worth monitoring S. fayeri infection in horses. It is worth considering S. fayeri infection as a cause of neuromuscular disease in horses showing weakness, muscle atrophy, and inflammation for which there is no other explanation. The disease EMS should be considered in old and debilitated horses.  Sarcocystis fayeri should be considered in horses with chronic inflammation. When  horses showing weakness do not have antibodies against S. neurona, EMS should be considered. Horses that provide meat that is fed to dogs should be monitored for S. fayeri.

If you have questions about S. fayeri, give us a call.