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To save dolphin’s dorsal fin experts combine medical technology and teamwork


Dolphin Quest enlists University of Pittsburgh specialist to develop custom ’scaffold’ for tissue’s repair; ’Liko is one lucky dolphin’

Dolphin Quest training director George Biedenbach with Liko

Liko in his sling soon after his surgery and application of extracellular matrix treatment in July.

An expert team of marine mammal veterinarians, medical researchers, cosmetic surgeons and dolphin trainers recently joined forces to apply the latest advances in human regenerative medicine in an attempt to restore a bottlenose dolphin’s damaged dorsal fin.

The procedure on Liko, a three-year-old male dolphin at Dolphin Quest on Hawaii’s Big Island, took place on July 30 and marked the first-ever marine mammal application of extracellular matrix tissue repair. Liko (pronounced Lee-ko) continues to undergo pioneering veterinary light emitting diode (LED ) therapy to stimulate tissue growth and regeneration in his injured fin.

Liko sustained a tear at the base of his dorsal (top) fin, likely in a game of "chase" with his dolphin cohorts. While wild dolphins have been observed with similar and more severe lacerations that can result in eventual loss of the dorsal fin, Dolphin Quest veterinarians organized the ground-breaking procedure in an effort to keep as much of Liko’s dorsal fin intact as possible. A dolphin’s dorsal fin consists of soft, cartilage-like tissue.

"Liko’s story is a story of medicine with a big heart," said Rae Stone, D.V.M., a Dolphin Quest veterinarian and co-owner. "It shows extraordinary voluntary cooperation across several human medical and veterinary disciplines that has involved numerous experts with cutting-edge technology and specialized experience. Liko is one very lucky young dolphin."

"Liko’s progress has been fantastic and he’s well on his way to healing completely," said Stephen Badylak, D.V.M., M.D., Ph.D., the University of Pittsburgh tissue engineering expert enlisted by Dolphin Quest. "The things we’ve learned working together to save Liko’s dorsal fin will help other dolphins in the future and many, many other animals of all kind, as Liko’s story helps introduce the concept of regenerative medicine to the veterinary field."

The use of extracellular matrix for the repair of soft tissues was developed by Dr. Badylak, research professor in the department of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of the Center for Pre-Clinical Tissue Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Once in place, the matrix, a 3-dimensional scaffold void of cells but with structural and functional proteins still intact, serves to recruit the appropriate cells for tissue remodeling without producing scarring.

The extracellular matrix used in Liko’s procedure was derived from pig urinary bladder and provided by ACellTM Inc., which Dr. Badylak and his team at the University of Pittsburgh custom-designed for Liko in consultation with veterinarians Dr. Stone and Jay Sweeney, V.M.D., Dolphin Quest co-presidents.

A major challenge the team faced was keeping the application in place on the active dolphin in a saltwater lagoon environment for the time it was expected to take for the soft tissue to sufficiently regenerate. The medical team employed a specially designed sling custom-made by Otter Bay Wetsuits to protect the extracellular matrix patch.

Drs. Stone and Sweeney lead the team that performed the procedure, which included Dolphin Quest veterinarian Gregg Levine, D.V.M.; cosmetic surgeon Paul Faringer, M.D., of Kona, Hawaii; veterinary technician Abby Simmons-Byrd, research and development manager for ACell, Inc.; Melyni Worth, Ph.D., of Thor Laser & LED Therapy; and George Biedenbach, director of animal management at Dolphin Quest Hawaii.

Liko’s LED therapy treatments began in September with equipment donated by Dr. Worth. LED wavelengths are longer than laser light and penetrate deeper to increase energy metabolism at the cellular level. Though LED light is three times brighter than the sun, the medical treatment wands are cool to the touch, highly portable and do not damage the skin of dolphins or humans.

Thermal imagery revealed patterns of increased vascular development in Liko’s dorsal fin and more rapid healing following application of localized LED therapy. Human cosmetic surgeon Dr. Faringer performed the initial procedure in July that prepped Liko’s wound for the sequence of fin-saving treatments to follow.

But all agree the most important member of the dolphin’s expert medical team is Liko, himself. The young dolphin’s calm comportment in human care allowed the initial surgery and weeks of groundbreaking intensive regenerative therapies without anesthesia or administration of sedatives.

"An important part of our animal care and training is building a relationship of mutual trust and conditioning our dolphins to being touched and treated by their veterinarians and trainers," said Mr. Biedenbach, Liko’s training director at Dolphin Quest Hawaii. "Liko’s cooperation makes him a key member of his own medical team and has gone a long way to improve his chances of a successful recovery."

"When we first put Liko’s medical team and treatment plan together, we were outwardly hopeful, but harbored some serious doubts that we would be able to save this dolphin’s dorsal fin," said Dr. Stone. "But Liko surprised us all. Today we’re optimistic that his fin will eventually be fully reattached and strong enough to stand up to the rigors of a robust male dolphin lifestyle."

Liko’s dorsal fin continues its remarkable healing as the young dolphin continues to participate in his pioneering regenerative therapies in a quiet lagoon alongside the Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort. Veterinarians are excited by his progress, but caution that Liko still has a ways to go on the road to recovery.

Lisa Rossi | EurekAlert!
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