stem cell technology Archives - Rhino Review

Can science save the last two white rhinos left on the planet? (Kenya)

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Zeenat Hansrod & Sébastien Nemeth, RFI | March 4, 2020

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Northern white rhinos no longer exist in the wild. The last two remaining female individuals are under constant surveillance in Kenya while scientists are working on groundbreaking techniques to save the species from complete extinction.

Najin and her daughter Fatu are under intense surveillance in their 700-acre (about 280-hectare) enclosure at the Ol Pejeta conservancy near the town of Nanyuki, on the equator in central Kenya. Their head caregiver, Zacharia Mutai, says his team considers them as family members.

“We know them very well and must ensure that they are healthy and well looked after.

“Having the last two is something very serious. We are trying all our best to protect and preserve them. We don’t want to face extinction any more.”

Mutai was the caregiver of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, which died in 2018.

The two remaining females, 31-year-old Najin and 20-year-old Fatu, are clinically infertile and cannot carry a pregnancy. Furthermore, Najin has a large tumour on her right ovary and Fatin has a damaged uterus.

Original photo as published by RFI: Najin (L) and Fatu (R) are the last two northen white rhinos in the world. The two female rhinos at the Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya. (Ami Vitale/BioRescue)

Groundbreaking Techniques

In order to save the species from extinction, scientists are working on artificial reproduction techniques which have never been attempted with rhinoceros before.

The efforts are pioneered by the BioRescue project at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) in Germany. The team of international scientists are using in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and stem cell technology for reproduction purposes.

“We have collected a lot of semen from four different northern white rhino bulls over the last 20 years,” says Professor Thomas Hildebrandt who heads the BioRescue project.

“This frozen semen allows us to do in vitro fertilisation and we hope to combine that approach together with groundbreaking stem cell technology.”

Hildebrandt, a veterinarian specialised in the reproduction of wild animals, hopes that the combined technology will help produce a viable population that could be released into the wild within 15 to 20 years.

Last year, in a unique procedure at the Ol Pejeta conservancy, his team managed to collect the eggs from Fatu and Najin, but only three embryos from Fatu’s eggs have managed to survive.

“Our goal is to produce the first offspring of the northern white rhino with IVF technique as soon as possible so that this baby can learn how to be a northern white rhino from Najin and Fatu.

“So, our timeline for that is about three years from now,” he added.

The embryos are ready for transfer into surrogate southern white rhinos mothers. Hildebrandt hopes that it will happen before the end of 2020. It will then be followed by a gestation period of 16 months.

Meanwhile in Kenya, Stephen Ngulu, the wildlife vet at the Ol Pejeta conservancy, told RFI that Najin and Fatu are scrupulously monitored.

“I have to observe their walking, their skin, check the eyes, teeth, feet or any wounds. I collect blood and we will test for various parasites, bacterial and viral diseases.”

Stem Cell Technology to Save Endangered Species

“The stem cell approach is needed because we need a gene pool large enough to create a solid, viable population of northern white rhinoceros,” said Hildebrandt, who has spent the last 20 years working with the northern white rhinos.

The technique, inspired by the work of the 2012 Nobel Prize-winning stem cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka, has only been performed on lab mice, but “nobody has been capable, so far, to do that with two-ton species like the rhino.”

The scientists are using stem cell technology to create eggs and sperm from deceased northern white rhinos.

“We have not only harvested sperms from the four different northern white rhino bulls but we also collected skin samples from 12 unrelated individuals.

“We have the best scientists on board and we hope to make significant progress in this field in the next three to five years,” Hildebrandt told RFI.

“It is very ambitious, but without dreams you can’t change the world.”

24/7 Armed Surveillance

The northern white rhino is endemic to swamp areas extending over Uganda, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Chad.

Extensive poaching and civil war led to their near extinction. Najin and Fatu were born in captivity and brought to Kenya in 2009 from the Dvur Kralove Safari Park in the Czech Republic.

The world’s two remaining northern white rhinos live under the constant surveillance of 42 armed guards from the National Police Reservists.

“We have a system where we can track the walkie talkies of the patrols. We have night vision, we have thermal images,” explains Emilio Gichuki at the Ol Pejeta conservancy.

He added that poaching is still an acute problem which they are trying to resolve by involving the neighbouring communities.


Saving rhinos with stem cells; $5.5 billion stem cell ballot measure readied (California)

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Bradley J. Fikes, The San Diego Union-Tribune | October 12, 2019

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The San Diego Zoo’s project to save the northern white rhino is now researching how to make sperm and egg cells to help resurrect the nearly extinct species, a zoo scientist said Thursday.

Marisa Korody, a conservation genetics scientist at the zoo’s Institute for Conservation research, gave the update to a scientific audience at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine in La Jolla.

ICR scientists have developed induced pluripotent stem cells from frozen tissue samples, Korody said. These cells act like embryonic stem cells. In theory, they can be converted into nearly any cell type in the body.

A number of tests have confirmed that these are true pluripotent stem cells, she said, displaying a video of beating heart cells, or cardiomyocytes, made from the cells.

Original photo as published by The San Diego Union-Tribune: Marisa Korody, a conservation genetics scientist with San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. (Bradley J. Fikes/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In theory, sperm and egg cells can be united to produce embryos, which can be implanted into closely related southern white rhino females, serving as surrogate mothers. Six of these are now being trained at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

But making these gametes is complicated, she said. They require supporting structures to mature properly, and nobody knows how to determine if they do mature properly. This means the zoo and colleagues are performing original science.

So-called primordial germ cells, the common ancestor of eggs and sperm, have arisen spontaneously. But they need to be reliably generated under controlled circumstances.

All rhino species and subspecies are endangered due to habitat loss and poaching for their horns, Korody said. “It’s our fault, we really need to help these species,” she said.

On the positive side, Korody said the dozen or so tissue samples from northern white rhinos contains enough genetic diversity to bring back a viable population.

This is known because that diversity is greater than that in the southern white rhino, which rebounded from near-extinction to a population of about 18,000.

Funding Initiative Launched for Stem Cell Program

A long-discussed state initiative to refund California’s stem cell program with $5.5 billion has at last begun.

Backers filed the initiative Thursday, according to the California Stem Cell Report, which closely tracks the program, called the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM. If it gets 633,212 valid signatures, the initiative will appear on the November 2020 ballot.

CIRM was founded by the passage of Proposition 71 in 2004. It got $3 billion from the sale of state bonds. It has been severely criticized for overpromising the speed at which stem cell treatments would get to patients. Advocates said the agency has had to go slow because of safety reasons.

There’s also the question of whether the agency should get more money, or whether its work should be transferred to private entities. California has the biggest biomedical industry in the nation, but it also has billions in state liabilities for purposes such as pensions. Critics say the state needs to address these unfunded liabilities.

Robert N. Klein, a real estate investment banker who led the original campaign to create CIRM, said in a recent interview that the new funding was necessary to ensure that therapies now in the clinic can reach patients.

The initiative sets aside $1.5 billion for research and development of treatments for neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke. It also provides money to help disadvantaged patients receive these treatments, Klein said.

Patients who live far away from major academic centers may have difficulty arranging to stay nearby while awaiting or receiving treatment, Klein said.

Initiative supporters need to convince the public that the $5.5 billion from state bonds is a wise use of public money. Earlier this week, a study from University of Southern California professors said that it was.

CIRM, funded with $3 billion from state bonds, has yielded $10.7 billion of additional gross output, or sales revenue, the study said. In addition, more than 56,000 full-time jobs were created. Go to http://j.mp/cirmeireport for the study.

The agency said the study and another report were funded by $206,000 from CIRM, which said the study was independent.

However, the California Stem Cell Report said the study didn’t convince critics of the agency, who said the agency has received enough money as it is.