Stem Cell Therapy could benefit injured African wildlife and Jabu

In November of 2016, Jabu was injured by a wild bull elephant which left him with a damaged wrist joint and osteoarthritis. We have been researching and testing innovative therapies to help him. In December of 2017, Jabu trialled the world’s first orthotic leg brace for an elephant and the fitting was showcased on Animal Planets Dodo Heroes series. It wasn’t a long-term or completely successful solution and so we quickly turned to other avenues.

 Doug Groves giving Jabu his monthly Pentosan injections for joint support

Doug Groves giving Jabu his monthly Pentosan injections for joint support

This year Jabu started to receive a novel preventative drug, called Pentosan, developed in Australia for repairing cartilage in race horses. These monthly injections seem to make him more comfortable and we will continue this therapy for 2018. Donations this year have helped cover the expense of this costly drug and the new diagnostics that were required to nail down proper diagnosis back in June. Thank you for your continued support. We learned from these XL x-rays that Jabu has angular limb deformity and osteo-arthritis in his carpal joints. We researched the possibility of surgery to correct his deformity but so far the conclusion is that his growth plates are closed (at age 31 years) and therefore surgery wouldn’t prove much benefit. Since we are wading in unknown medical territory with elephants, the data is very limited. But our team of experts pull from all they know and case studies to help us come up with well informed conclusions.

 Dr. Valerie Johnson looking at cells in her Colorado State University Centre for Immune and Regenerative DVM Medicine

Dr. Valerie Johnson looking at cells in her Colorado State University Centre for Immune and Regenerative DVM Medicine

This past year, we have also been working in partnership with Colorado State University Centre for Immune and Regenerative DVM Medicine (CSU) on a stem cell therapy trial for Jabu. This could prove to be a very promising treatment for Jabu and learned lessons that will have application to others (elephants, other wildlife) as vets and researchers build their capacity through involvement with Jabu’s case.

To date, stem cell therapy has been administered by Dr. Valerie Johnson’s team at CSU to three elephants. Dr. Johnson grows Mesenchymal stem cells from donated elephant blood acquired from young healthy African elephant donors for administration to African elephants with documented osteoarthritis (allogeneic stem cell therapy).  It takes about 4 weeks to grow stem cells and then another couple weeks to expand them (let the cells multiply to attain a greater number of cells as effect is dose dependent). Once she has stem cells then she can freeze them (and cryogenically store them at CSU). They will be transported to Botswana on ice in stem cell media then washed in a laboratory and administered on arrival. The cells will be injected intra-venously through the ear for least risk of infection and overall benefit to Jabu. We are considering intra-articular administration (directly injected into the joint) as well.

Dr. Johnson has successfully treated other species with osteo-arthritis including polar bears, giraffe, tiger and wolves. Read news here. We are so thankful for her commitment to this project.

Are these the same stem cells and type of therapy a person might get for their dog or themselves in USA?

“People who sell stem cells use stromal vascular fraction (SVF) cells.  These are cells isolated from bone marrow or fat and then digested and spun down and given back to the animal.  Basically that is the precursor of what you would use to grow expanded stem cells.  We think expanded cells are better than SVF because they are a uniform population of cells and you can give a much bigger dose and the effects are dose dependent.” explains Dr. Johnson. 

What do injected stem cells do?

 Jabu’s future stem cells are stored here at Colorado State University

Jabu’s future stem cells are stored here at Colorado State University

“The main effects are immunomodulatory - they dampen the immune response but don't dampen protective immune functions (like NSAIDS).  So they decrease inflammation.  But in addition they track to areas of inflammation (driven by receptors) and in these environments they decrease inflammatory cells and promote wound healing cells.  They also stimulate endogenous stem cells to become active and in this way promote chondrogenesis and healing of joints.” reports Dr. Johnson. 

Are Jabu’s cells ready, did they expand ok?

Yes! Blood was collected from donor young elephants and transported to the CSU lab. Dr. Johnson was able to successfully grow stem cells from these blood samples and then checked for viability. They are good to go! They are frozen now and await permits to be awarded by CITES and federal authorities for import. We are six months out from transporting them to Botswana and injecting Jabu with these cells! This will be the first attempt at stem cell therapy for a wild African Elephant and the fourth time that an elephant has been treated worldwide.

 Stem cells grown by CSU ready for Jabu! Photo taken by Dr. Valerie Johnson, CSU

Stem cells grown by CSU ready for Jabu! Photo taken by Dr. Valerie Johnson, CSU

What are the potential benefits again To Jabu?

The benefits are numerous including proven decrease in joint inflammation and catalytic action on resident stem cells at the site of inflammation to increase cartilage regeneration (and many other effects) without adverse reactions. In addition to benefits for osteoarthritis there are documented benefits in wound healing and resolution of infection in multi-drug resistant infections.

Possible Future Benefits to Southern Africa’s local vet knowledge and saving wildlife

 Learning together

Learning together

This project serves to benefit all wildlife by sharing knowledge and offering a chance for participant researchers and veterinarians in Southern Africa to work on Jabu’s case firsthand with CSU. By building regional capacity, many more injured elephants and other wildlife will be helped. For example, it is possible stem cell therapy could be used to save rhinos who require life-saving reconstructive face surgery after poaching attacks.

Jabu's stem cell therapy is a highly expensive project given the challenges of getting people and supplies (and cells) to him in the Botswana wilderness. With your support, this treatment will become reality in the next six months. We need $30,000 to pay for volunteer vets’ flights and accommodations, supplies and lab usage. Please join us in advancing these novel treatments for injured elephants and get Jabu movin’ and groovin’ (as Doug Groves likes to say).


Author: Kelsey Envik Photos: Doug and Sandi Groves