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Stem cell treatment helping Indiana zoo's arthritic monkey

An experimental stem cell treatment appears to be helping a monkey at the Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden heal from spinal arthritis.

Posted: Feb 10, 2020 10:55 AM

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — An experimental stem cell treatment appears to be helping a monkey at the Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden heal from spinal arthritis.

After two of the cutting-edge treatments, K.J., a 17-year-old male colobus monkey, is showing considerable improvements, said Dr. Carrie Ullmer, staff veterinarian at the zoo.

"He is doing really well," she said. "We are seeing him doing several things he hasn't been able to do for months."

K.J. came to live at the zoo in August 2019. But, by the following fall, K.J. was starting to have trouble moving around.

Testing revealed age-related spinal arthritis was causing weakness in K.J.'s hind legs, Ullmer said. When medicines to treat his pain and inflammation didn't produce the improvements that were hoped for, K.J. was taken to Louisville for a CT scan of his spine.

The scans showed that not only was arthritis affecting some of K.J.'s nerves, Ullmer said, but he also had some bulging or ruptured intervertebral discs, conditions more often seen in humans.

That is when Ullmer decided to reach out to Dr. Valerie Johnson, a veterinary colleague at Colorado State University doing stem cell research in other other animals. Ullmer said she had seen Johnson's presentations at professional conferences, and it seemed promising.

The process has already been studied in pets as well as some other species of zoo animals such as giraffes and elephants.

She said Johnson was able to grow stem cells from a small piece of fat tissue taken from another colobus monkey at Mesker Park Zoo who was already scheduled for a routine surgery.

The tissue was used to grow mesenchymal stem cells, a type of cell that can help the body repair certain inflamed and damaged tissues. Stem cells are the cells from which all other cells in the body with specialized functions are generated, according to the Mayo Clinic, and are the only cells in the body with the natural ability to generate new cell types.

More: Colorado State Veterinary Teaching Hospital treats dogs, exotic animals with stem cells

Johnson traveled to Evansville, and on Dec. 17 at Mesker's animal hospital, K.J. received his first infusion of stem cells, Ullmer said. He received a second infusion on Jan. 23.

No further treatments are planned, Ullmer said.

The treatments appear to be working. Ramps had been constructed in K.J.'s habitat to accommodate his disability. However, he has recently begun jumping from branch-to-branch again, hopping and socializing more.

While K.J. is reaching old age, Ullmer said it isn't uncommon for zoo animals to outlive their wild counterparts because of the nutrition and healthcare they receive and lack of predators or harsh environments.

So while it is unlikely K.J. will completely return to normal, Ullmer said zoo staff are hopeful he can continue to enjoy a good quality of life.

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