Feb 28, 2022 - News

Baby elephant's stem cells to help zoos across U.S.

Baby elephant Frankie sits on the ground, surrounded by adult female elephants
Frankie, born at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium on June 16. Photo: Grahm S. Jones, courtesy of the zoo

Frankie the baby elephant could be a lifesaver someday thanks to a project he jump-started the day he was born at the Columbus Zoo last summer.

What's happening: Tissues from Frankie's umbilical cord have been used to create Asian elephant stem cell lines at Ohio State's College of Veterinary Medicine and on a national scale at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance's Frozen Zoo.

Why it matters: Stem cell therapy is emerging as a promising treatment for animals with illnesses and injuries. Newborn elephants in particular have high mortality rates even in captivity.

How it works: Cultured stem cells reproduce by dividing into identical copies.

  • When injected, they have the ability to become the same kind of cell as those they're adjacent to. That helps treat conditions like arthritis and sepsis without anesthesia.
  • If a lab keeps some stem cells frozen, as in Frankie's case, a single animal's tissues can proliferate several times and supply many treatments, Sushmitha Durgam, Ohio State's researcher, tells Axios.

What they're saying: "Now if any elephant in the country needs stem cells, his will be available to help. It's an amazing feeling," senior Columbus Zoo veterinarian Priya Baproda-Villaverde tells Axios.

Flashback: The local partnership first started over a year ago, when Durgam treated a gazelle's septic joint by injecting the area with its own stem cells and plasma.

The intrigue: Durgam is also growing a line of cells in her lab from a Masai giraffe named Enzi, collected from a fat sample while he was anesthetized for a hoof procedure.

Context: It's common for zoos to work with outside researchers and each other to advance animal health care. Blood and plasma, for example, are also regularly banked and shared.

  • Before connecting with Ohio State, Columbus Zoo veterinarians had previously worked with Michigan State University researcher Valerie Johnson to treat giraffes like Enzi. Now, they have quick access to cells nearby.

What's next: The zoo hasn't had to use its new stem cell lines yet but is ready if an emergency arises.

Meanwhile, researchers like Johnson are learning how to better obtain stem cells from blood, which would be less invasive than collecting from fat and bone marrow, she tells Axios.

A gazelle undergoes a bone marrow aspiration
A Columbus Zoo gazelle undergoes a bone marrow aspiration to retrieve stem cells during surgical treatment of a joint infection. Photo courtesy of OSU's College of Veterinary Medicine
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