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Team Announces Groundbreaking Elephant Herpes Study

January 28, 2009

The Houston Zoo and Baylor College of Medicine today announced a groundbreaking collaboration on a project to study the elephant herpes virus in an effort to protect elephants in zoos and in the wild from this deadly disease.

“The Houston Zoo is committed to this cause, not only to benefit our own elephants, but elephants throughout the world,” said Houston Zoo Director Rick Barongi. “Baylor College of Medicine is a recognized leader in virology research for humans and it is our hope that both elephants and humans will benefit from this study.”

Losing Mac

The collaboration between BCM and the Zoo was initiated after Mac, a 2-year-old Asian elephant, died of the virus in November. Dr. Alan Herron, director of the Comparative Pathology Laboratory in the Center for Comparative Medicine at BCM, called the Houston Zoo’s Director of Veterinary Services, Dr. Joe Flanagan, and the two of them discussed how beneficial it would be to appropriately test for the disease and to work to develop a vaccine for it.

Top virologists, vaccine experts

Herron, an associate professor of pathology and veterinarian, brought in two of BCM’s leading virologists and vaccine experts, Dr. Wendy Keitel and Dr. Robert Atmar, along with Dr. Paul Ling, a BCM faculty member whose laboratory focus is on the human herpes virus. The experts soon agreed that by working together, both animals and humans could benefit.

“This project will be one of the most comprehensive efforts to combat the virus,” said Herron. “By sharing expertise and resources, we hope to help elephant survival long-term and we expect it will give us additional information in studying human disease.”

Understanding the virus

The project will involve a full-time research fellow who will work with veterinarians at the Houston Zoo and the faculty members at BCM. Goals of the project will include growing the virus in cell culture, monitoring the elephants at the zoo for active infection using PCR technology, testing the effectiveness of anti-viral drugs as a potential treatment for the virus, solving the mystery of how the virus is spread and developing an effective vaccine for the virus. The research team at both the Zoo and BCM will network with other institutions to better understand this disease and develop more effective treatment options.

Many questions surround the elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus. It affects both Asian and African elephants, but is more often fatal in Asian elephants. It occurs in elephants in captivity and in those who live in the wild.

The elephant herpes virus was identified by the National Zoo in 1995. Herpes viruses are usually species-specific but share common features. Once inside a host, whether human or animal, the virus can go into a latent phase after causing only mild symptoms or no signs of the disease.

In fatal cases, symptoms do not show up in elephants until it is too late for treatment to be effective. Hopefully, with frequent testing, early infections can be identified before the elephants become seriously ill.

Elephants have lived at the Houston Zoo since it opened in 1922. Today, the zoo is home to five Asian elephants ““ two males and three females.

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