A company working on the “de-extinction” of the woolly mammoth is now in the process of developing a vaccine that could help save modern elephants from the same fate as their cold-adapted relatives.
On Wednesday, Colossal Biosciences, which was founded by tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and world-renowned geneticist George Church, announced that it is accelerating research and development efforts to create a vaccine for a deadly disease that is the leading cause of death in Asian elephant calves in captivity. in Asia, North America and Europe and a major threat in the wild.
Today, there are fewer than 52,000 Asian elephants left in the wild and they are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. Fatal hemorrhagic disease is considered a major threat to the long-term survival of these Asian elephants.
The disease that affects Asian elephants, especially younger and less immunocompromised individuals, is caused by the elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, or EEHV.
“EEHV is responsible for nearly 66 percent of all Asian elephant deaths in North American zoos and for a still unknown but vastly underestimated number of wild elephants,” said Matt James, head of animal operations at Colossal. news week.
“Since this virus is latent, it can lie dormant for years before reactivating and causing clinical illness and death, making detection and treatment very difficult.”
To advance the development of a vaccine, Colossal has teamed up with Paul Ling, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Virology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
“Colossal is very excited to be collaborating with Paul Ling of Baylor College of Medicine,” said Lamm. news week. “Dr. Ling is the world’s leading expert on EEHV and has single-handedly saved more elephants than we will ever know through his innovations in creating viral detection assays that allow us to treat elephants sooner.” that they show symptoms of illness.
“This collaboration, which began earlier this year, enables Colossal to provide funding and functional expertise to Dr. Ling’s lab that will accelerate his continued development and production of a protein subunit vaccine.”
Ling’s lab has identified EEHV-specific proteins that Colossal says he can engineer into a vaccine. This injection will train the elephant’s immune system to mount a defense against the pathogen.
In addition, Colossal is working with Ling to develop a “second generation” EEHV vaccine based on mRNA technologies similar to Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID shots.
“These vaccines deliver a portion of messenger RNA to the elephant’s cells that will cause the cells to produce EEHV-specific proteins and train the elephant’s immune response to produce antigens to protect against the virus,” James said.
Colossal is also developing a monoclonal antibody treatment that will be designed to deliver life-saving antibodies to critically ill elephants.
“As we know, vaccines are highly effective but rarely perfect, so it’s important to us that we provide elephants with every possible tool to beat this horrible disease,” James said.
“Dr. Ling’s work to better understand EEHV and seek treatment and prevention solutions has been underway for several years, and we are pleased to share that the synergies of our collaboration will accelerate the development of these technologies and, once implemented, begin save immediately. elephants,” he said. “Dr. Ling’s research is the foundation for the current understanding of EEHV and an associated vaccine and has inspired others to continue this effort as well, including a lab in Europe that is working on a solution in parallel.”
All three existing elephant species — Asian, African forest and African savannah — are endangered and the problems they face cannot be solved with a single solution, James said.
“Elephants face massive anthropogenic pressures including poaching, urban development, habitat fragmentation and human-elephant conflict. These pressures, when combined with natural pressures such as disease, have put elephants in a position very precarious.”
“We are excited to commit to eradicating EEHV as a pressure, but we are also developing a network of partners from the world’s leading elephant conservation organizations. These amazing organizations are working on a wide range of projects, such as rescuing and re-releasing elephants. orphans. , understand elephant behavior to better equip conservation efforts and provide wildlife officials with tools to prevent wildlife crime.”
Colossal had previously begun work on the “de-extinction” of the woolly mammoth, an effort that aims to create a genetically modified hybrid elephant with mammoth traits and eventually introduce it to the arctic tundra.
“Living populations of Asian elephants are critical to the restoration of the woolly mammoth, but more importantly, to the preservation of the elephant lineage. We are delighted to advance science to benefit current and future generations of elephants and mammoths,” Justin said. Quinn, director of product development for Colossal, in a statement.
In August, the company announced that it was also working on the extinction of the iconic thylacine, better known as the Tasmanian tiger.