Horse DNA-testing service sets up shop in Menlo Park | January 2, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

News - January 2, 2019

Horse DNA-testing service sets up shop in Menlo Park

by Kate Bradshaw

"The only thing better than science is science with horses," Christa Lafayette, CEO of Etalon Diagnostics, said with a smile on a recent Wednesday afternoon at her pop-up lab situated at the former site of Yogurt Stop along El Camino Real in Menlo Park.

(It appears that plans to pass the former yogurt shop to a successor have fallen through, but The Almanac has not yet received a response to requests for comment from the shop's former owner.)

Lafayette is a Menlo Park resident who describes herself as a person deeply interested in biotech and in horses. She said she suspects people tend to be more "horsey" and "geeky" on the Midpeninsula than average, and hopes Menlo Park will be a fruitful location to set up her equine DNA-testing lab.

The Etalon Diagnostics lab, which looks unassuming in the back corner of the small storefront, can do several on-the-spot DNA tests with a single horse hair: a positive alternative to other animal testing systems that require animals to be in cages or stuck with needles, she said. Lafayette would know, having worked in the area of preclinical trials at Stanford University before her current venture.

Genomic tests for horses can help people make sure they're getting what they pay for in an expensive horse, and can prevent people from breeding horses that may carry recessive genes that lead to diseases or traits deemed "undesirable," she explained. "It makes sense in an animal this expensive to know what you're getting," she said.

Lafayette described horses that are born with a condition called cerebellar abiotrophy, a neurological condition that can be fatal. Others are born "gaited," a term that describes a condition in which horses are unable to synchronize their front and back legs to run in a coordinated motion.

But the company, she said, can do more than provide parentage tests for horse breeders and buyers.

Using an artificial intelligence algorithm, she said, Etalon is able to combine the DNA sequences with other information about the horses — such as statistics from equestrian and dressage competitions — to get a uniquely intimate portrait of what each horse's strengths and weaknesses are.

Each horse's data is kept private, but in a database where the algorithm can search for patterns and abnormalities across genomes.

What's more, Lafayette said, joking that the program can "kill two horses with one stone," she's optimistic that the database could prove useful for further study of similar diseases in humans.

Etalon Diagnostics will remain open at the Menlo Park storefront at 405 El Camino Real through Jan. 30, into the start of "breeding season," which runs between January and May, she said.

The business, which currently has about 10 to 12 employees, is growing. Lafayette said the company plans to release a "build-a-horse" online program using the DNA profiles of horses whose owners support it. The program will allow users to put together a "genetic wish list" of the features they would want to breed for.

"We want (fewer) poorly bred lawn ornaments and better matches for people who enjoy horses," she said. "We're not Jurassic Park yet."

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