The Great Ape Heart Project: Using a Global Centralized Database to Improve Animal Health, Conservation, and Research
The Great Ape Heart Project has worked over the last several years to develop a database that will be available online for veterinarians and cardiac advisors. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) has been identified as a major cause of death in captive great apes. The Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP) based at Zoo Atlanta (USA) (greatapeheartproject.org) has designed an innovative and coordinated program to investigate ape CVD and establish uniform, state-of-the-art cardiac diagnostics, and therapeutic and prevention strategies for great ape CVD. Understanding, managing, and researching diseases that affect species where only a few individuals are housed in multiple zoological institutions have historically been a challenge. The Great Ape Heart Project, based at Zoo Atlanta, is an example of the zoo community recognizing the need to better understand what causes cardiovascular disease in great apes and to improve monitoring techniques and treatment options in their collections. A 2010 Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership Collaborative Planning Grant (IMLS-NLG) funded a planning workshop that brought together a targeted audience of cardiac and ape specialists from varied disciplines within the USA. This meeting assessed currently available resources, identified needs and impediments to progress, and agreed on specific actions to be taken in four areas of ape CVD: clinical diagnosis/treatment, pathology, identifying etiologies, and communication.
A top priority identified at the 2011 planning meeting was for the GAHP to develop a database ensuring all archived and prospective CVD-relevant clinical and pathology data are compiled into a confidential yet searchable resource. This effort was awarded a 2012 IMLS National Leadership Grant for Museums that funded the design and implementation of the software platform needed, and this database is currently operational in several zoological institutions within the USA. This tool was developed through extensive collaboration between the GAHP subject matter experts (SME) and the software developer, Prelude Dynamics based in Austin, TX (www.preludedynamics.com). Prelude Dynamics has provided the GAHP with a customized, online, multi-institutional database program. The GAHP VISION™ database facilitates best practices for collection and management of CVD-relevant data.
The database supports statistically robust retrospective and prospective studies, involving numerous subject matter experts (SMEs), to encourage discovery of potential causes of ape CVD and to evaluate the efficacy of different treatment regimens. All retrospectively collected data has been migrated into this database, along with ape studbook and related information. This information is currently being used to identify disease trends and current gaps in data collected during ape examinations. The GAHP serves as a resource and communication hub between veterinarians charged with the care of individual apes and SMEs from various disciplines, including veterinary and human cardiologists, pathologists, and ape keepers. Ape cardiac necropsy protocols are being standardized, and the database will allow for comparison between clinically relevant information and pathologic information at necropsy.
Utilizing a centralized database improves clinical management of apes affected with CVD by allowing more targeted and timely reports to individual institutions regarding their animals. The GAHP VISION™ Database currently contains historical studbook data for all four great ape taxa housed in AZA institutions. The program allows users to map out familial relationships from the studbooks with the potential for determining genetic links to CVD. The database contains cardiac exam records dating back to 1992. The database is only accessible with a unique login and password that is assigned by the GAHP. User access to records is limited based on customized settings within VISION™. Individual animal identifiers are blinded through an ID generated by the software, thus preserving confidentiality while providing a way for researchers with layered permissions to access information needed for research analysis. In addition to customized data fields for cardiac exam measurements, the database stores echocardiograms and EKG files. Storing large, digitized files on Prelude Dynamics’ dedicated server not only allows the GAHP to preserve the files for research integrity purposes but also creates a secure online access point for SMEs to review exams and provide report feedback within VISION™. This eliminates the need to mail hard copies of exams or give direct access to a zoo’s server to view digital files. When an ape moves to a new institution, the new institution receives the complete cardiac records of that ape and can begin adding to the records. The prior institution reserves the ability to view the historical data up to the date of transfer, but they will not have access to future data.
By generating and collecting CVD-relevant data in a coordinated and cohesive manner for analysis and coordinated action, the GAHP overcomes previous obstacles among zoo veterinarians wanting to better understand and treat CVD in great ape collections and serves as a national and international model for disease investigation. Development of the GAHP VISION™ Database shows how zoos can pair with software developers to initiate more in-depth disease investigations that can span multiple institutions, record-keeping systems, privacy concerns, and also incorporate multiple SMEs to evaluate data real-time as it is entered into the system. This system serves as a model for any disease investigation project including field-based conservation programs. VISION™ has a digital paper solution that allows information to be collected in areas where there is no internet available using tablets and then uploaded at a later time. VISION™ allows for multi-language integration and translation capability for international institutions. Researchers of any species wishing to track health trends in order to improve health and conservation outcomes and increase lifespan could take advantage of VISION™.