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Saving the manatee

What does the world’s first 100 percent effective cancer vaccine have to do with manatee rehabilitation? "You would be surprised," says University of Louisville vaccine researcher A. Bennett Jenson.

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What does the world’s first 100 percent effective cancer vaccine have to do with manatee rehabilitation?

"You would be surprised," says University of Louisville vaccine researcher A. Bennett Jenson.

Along with colleague Shin-je Ghim, Jenson is helping U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials make sure that rehabilitated manatees that are released into the wild don’t infect other manatees with a papillomavirus—a cousin of the virus that causes cancer of the cervix, head and neck in humans.

Jenson and Ghim, who work at the UofL James Graham Brown Cancer Center and helped develop the first 100 percent effective cancer vaccine for cervical cancer, recently were honored with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Manatee Conservation Award for their work with the animal.

Related to the elephant, manatees are large, slow-moving sea mammals whose populations are endangered due to collisions with watercraft, loss of reliable warm water habitats (they don’t do well in water less than 68 degrees Fahrenheit) and destruction of their food supply (seagrass) due to coastal development and pollution. The largest population of manatees, about 3,300, lives in Florida, according to wildlife experts.

Many sick and injured manatees are rescued every year. These animals are often rehabilitated and returned to the wild with the help of conservation facilities.

But in the late 1990s, a virus emerged among captive manatees that caused concern among scientists who feared it could compromise the future of the already endangered species. Working with wildlife biologists, Jenson and Ghim isolated the virus and developed a reliable test.

They found that the virus wasn’t new—although these were the first skin lesions noted by wildlife biologists.

"It is actually a very primitive virus, but it seems to have been latent until recently," Jenson says.

The virus is dormant in healthy animals but surfaces as open lesions in sick and stressed manatees, such as those undergoing rehabilitation.

Results from the new test led officials to change federal regulations to allow wildlife specialists to release rehabilitated manatees into the wild without quarantine and without fear of harming the manatee population.

Now Jenson and Ghim are working on a preventive vaccine for manatees that have not been exposed to the virus.

Nicole Adimey, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has been working with the researchers for more than a decade, says the Manatee Conservation Award acknowledges "Drs. Jenson and Ghim for all of their years of work dedicated to understanding manatee papillomavirus and how it impacts this endangered species."

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