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Hope for elephants

elephantCornell Wildlife Specialist Attempts to Culture Deadly EEHV Virus

At first, the baby elephant was quiet. She appeared to have a mild episode of colic. Within three hours, she was lethargic and had stopped eating, The next day, despite aggressive treatment, her head and tongue had grown swollen. Twenty four hours after the onset of clinical signs, she collapsed. The calf, one of just a handful of elephants born in captivity in North America each year, had died. This is the tragic but typical progression of EEHV, or Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesviruses – the leading cause of reproductive failure, abortion, and neonatal and juvenile mortality in Asian elephants (Elephas maximus).

“This is a devastating disease – and it is compromising the long term sustainability of the captive population,” said Noha Abou-Madi, Senior Lecturer in the Section of Wildlife & Exotic Animal Medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Having recently lost a young elephant to its ravages, Abou-Madi has witnessed firsthand the effects of EEHV, which is estimated to be highly fatality in Asian elephants.

Abou-Madi decided to do something about this deadly disease. “Excellent researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine are working with viruses, including herpes viruses,” said Abou-Madi. “We thought that we had the tools available here to make a difference.”

While many strains of EEHV have been identified through PCR, none have been cultured. Based on the affinity of the virus for endothelial cells, which are the cells that line blood vessels, Abou-Madi’s hypothesis was that EEHV would replicate best in a laboratory setting (in vitro) in elephant endothelial cell cultures. Drawing on resources available at Cornell, and funded through grants from the Morris Animal Foundation and the Elephant Managers Association, Abou-Madi’s team isolated and successfully cultured endothelial cells derived from the umbilical cord of elephants. Culturing the virus will advance understanding of the biology of the virus and hopefully lead to the development of a vaccine.

While Abou-Madi gathers samples from the tissues and blood of infected animals in the field, much of the basic laboratory analysis is being performed under the mentorship of Julia Flaminio, the Harry M. Zweig Assistant Professor in Equine Health. Professor of Virology Ed Dubovi and research technicians Mary Beth Matychak and Michelle Hilton have also been essential for the realization of the project. “We hope that these efforts will greatly contribute to elephant management and conservation worldwide,” said Abou-Madi.