Innovative Stem Cell Therapy Gives Animals New Hope

Back in July, Explore highlighted the importance AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums place on animal care and well-being with a story on the power of partnerships.  This week, I’d like to feature a story of hope based on good science.

Five months ago, a Bengal tiger in Mexico was injured during a tropical storm when a building collapsed on its hind legs, rendering them completely immobile.  InGeneron, a biomedical device company, heard of the tiger’s tragic story and offered to perform a stem-cell therapy procedure which could save the tiger’s legs.

Dr. Lauren Howard, Associate Veterinarian at the Houston Zoo working with Dr. Ivone Bruno, PhD of InGeneron, Inc. Copyright, Houston Zoo.

Dr. Lauren Howard, Associate Veterinarian at the Houston Zoo, working with Dr. Ivone Bruno, PhD of InGeneron, Inc., on Remley's procedure. Copyright, Houston Zoo.

Although InGeneron had previously performed the autologous stem cell procedure in other species – dogs, cats, and horses – some specific knowledge, such as the optimal volume of stem cells to inject into a tiger joint, fell under the expertise of a few highly specialized veterinarians.  To find that expertise, InGeneron called upon Dr. Joe Flanagan, the Houston Zoo’s Director of Veterinary services.

The procedure was a success with the Bengal tiger quickly regaining full mobility of its hind legs.  In return for the Houston Zoo’s assistance, InGeneron offered to perform the same stem cell procedure on the Zoo’s severely arthritic babirusa, Remley.  Though she is still young, Remley already suffers from a severe joint disease that seems to affect many babirusa throughout the U.S.

“She’s had this condition now for a couple of years and there is no other way to turn around the damage in her joints with the traditional medicine at our disposal,” explains Houston Zoo Associate Veterinarian Dr. Lauren Howard. “When InGeneron offered to volunteer their services, she was the immediate first choice.”

On Friday, October 21st, Dr. Howard and InGeneron staff worked together at the Houston Zoo hospital to perform the same procedure that had cured the Bengal tiger.  After Remley had been sedated, superficial fat was collected from her abdominal area.  Using InGeneron’s portable processor, the capillaries from the fat tissue were processed within 90 minutes into stem cells which were injected into Remley’s two carpal and two tarsal joints.

Remley, the babirusa. Copyright, Houston Zoo.

Remley, the babirusa. Copyright, Houston Zoo.

Four weeks after the stem cell procedure had been performed, thanks to the partnership between InGeneron and the Houston Zoo veterinary staff, Remley was walking without any signs of limping.

“She has done very well,” says Dr. Howard.  Even during “a brief spell of cold weather this fall and earlier this month (December), we saw no issues with her mobility and range of motion.”

For an animal plagued with a history of significant joint disease, it has been an amazing recovery so far, and her veterinarians are looking forward to seeing how well she does through the rest of the cold winter months.  The Houston Zoo is currently evaluating the next possible candidates for stem cell therapy.

Partnerships like these can give animals a better quality of life.  This holiday season, consider adopting an animal at your local AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium. Help ensure that they receive the best possible care while giving a loved one a memorable gift.

Elise Waugh

This entry was posted in Animal Health, Houston Zoo, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Innovative Stem Cell Therapy Gives Animals New Hope

  1. Gina Zullo says:

    This is amazing, what a wonderful begining for a new way to help the animals in our care.

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