Australia's Chief Scientist

Same spots but new cells for Snow Leopard

Harnessing technology that has been used successfully to treat domestic dogs and cats, stem cells were isolated from the leopard’s own fat deposits and injected into the arthritic joint.

Stem cells are a special type of cell that can differentiate, or change, into many different cell types.

All cells in an organism are descended from stem cells. Through a complex mix of signals these all-purpose cells specialise to become all the different parts of our bodies, developing into everything we need, from liver and heart cells to bones and blood.

While most cells in an adult organism have already specialised, some stem cells are still present. For example, in our bone marrow, all the components of our blood (including red blood cells and all the different white blood cells) are regularly produced from a single type of stem cell to make sure we have all the blood cells we need.

In the case of Kamala the snow leopard, keepers and vets at the zoo hope her own stem cells will help to repair damaged cartilage in her knee which was caused by a rare disorder when she was only six months old. The idea behind the treatment is that Kamala’s stem cells can change into all the different cell types needed to help rebuild her damaged knee.

The cracked cartilage led to a case of osteoarthritis, which has not yet responded to existing treatments. For an animal that spends its time running over rocky terrain, a knee joint without its cushioning layer of cartilage can be a big problem.

While Kamala was under anaesthetic, zoo staff and specialist vets removed a lump of fat from her belly. Lab staff then treated the fat with enzymes that separated out all the fibrous connective tissue and left behind a collection of cells, including a high number of stem cells.

X-ray of the knee

X-ray of the knee

Kamala before the operation

Kamala before the operation

The cell preparation, which includes stem cells, is injected into the knee joint

The stem cells are injected into the knee joint

Those stem cells were then injected into her knee joint where it is hoped they will stimulate repair of the damaged tissue and reduce the painful inflammation. The whole procedure is relatively fast, with only two hours of anaesthetic required, reducing the risk of complications for this endangered species.

Kamala is one of only about 700 snow leopards living in zoos and there are believed to be less than 7000 left in the wild. If the stem cell therapy is successful, Kamala will hopefully be a part of the zoo’s breeding program to bolster global numbers of her species.

This type of stem cell therapy is also being trialled in humans. It offers significant potential as a therapy because the cells are relatively easy to collect from a patient’s own body. Also, the use of a patient’s own stem cells removes the risk of rejection by the body’s immune system.

You can check out a video of the Kamala’s surgery here.

To learn more about Australia’s stem cell research efforts visit the Australian Stem Cell Centre website.

Photo credit: Marco Del Grande