Characterization and Administration of Allogeneic Blood-Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells in an African Elephant (Loxdonta africana) with Severe Osteoarthritis
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2017
Valerie Johnson1, DVM, DACVECC; Matthew Johnston1, VMD, DABVP (Avian Practice); Liza Dadone2, VMD; Steven Dow1, DVM, DACVIM, PhD
1Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology and the Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA; 2Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs CO, USA


Arthritis is a common condition in captive elephants for which few curative remedies are available or effective.1 The advent of cellular therapies as a novel treatment for osteoarthritis in multiple species prompted the investigation of the utility of this therapy in this population.2 Mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) are derived from stromal cells located in adult bone marrow or adipose tissue; however, acquisition of these tissues in an elephant can be problematic. This report describes the successful derivation and expansion of MSC from the blood of a 38-yr-old female African elephant (Loxdonta africana) and subsequent intravenous delivery of these cells for the purpose of ameliorating severe clinical signs of osteoarthritis of the stifle joint. The cells were confirmed to be MSC via surface marker phenotype, trilineage differentiation, and function assessed via lymphocyte suppression. Clinical signs in this elephant had been present for approximately 15 yr and had progressed despite conventional therapy involving medications and physical therapy. The elephant had deteriorated to circumducting its leg most of the time with only 11% bending based on hourly observations. Following stem cell therapy the elephant displayed significant reduction in clinical signs of osteoarthritis as determined by thermal imaging, ability and willingness to perform physical therapy and increased range of motion in the joint with up to 91% bending of the stifle by 2 mo after treatment. Improvement was sustained throughout the following year and deterioration again noted by decreased bending of the stifle 12–13 mo after initial treatment. At this time allogeneic MSC isolated from umbilical cord blood of an African elephant were expanded and administered intravenously. The second injection was well tolerated and followup monitoring will be performed and assessed as for the previous injection. MSC therapy is feasible in this species and could represent a novel therapy for the treatment of a common and problematic disorder in the aging population of elephants under managed care.


The author would like to acknowledge funding through the Shipley Foundation Grant (SD).

Literature Cited

1.  Hittmair KM, Vielgrader HD. Radiographic diagnosis of lameness in African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Vet Radiol Ultrasound. 2000;41(6):511–515.

2.  Freitag J, Bates D, Boyd R, Shah K, Barnard A, Huguenin L, Tenen A. Mesenchymal stem cell therapy in the treatment of osteoarthritis: reparative pathways, safety and efficacy—a review. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2016;17:230.


Speaker Information
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Valerie Johnson, DVM, DACVECC
Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology and the Department of Clinical Sciences
College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO, USA

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