Stem cell breakthrough cures gorilla's arthritis in a first

A collaboration between researchers at the University of Sheffield and Budapest Zoo sees an aging gorilla walk again with ease. Will this treatment be fruitful for humans?
Amal Jos Chacko
Stem cells injected into Liesel's joints.
Stem cells injected into Liesel's joints.

University of Sheffield 

Scientists at the University of Sheffield have employed stem cell therapy to treat osteoarthritis in a gorilla for the first time.

Liesel, the elderly matriarch of the Budapest Zoo, had been struggling to walk on her left leg, signaling a possible battle with arthritis. This marked the initiation of a unique collaboration between veterinary expertise and cutting-edge science to alleviate the suffering of the aging primate.

Liesel's plight was a concerning one. The Budapest Zoo, renowned for its commitment to the well-being of its animals, decided to take an innovative approach to her treatment.

Led by Endre Sós, the Chief Vet, and Professor Mark Wilkinson, an Orthopedic Surgeon and arthritis expert from the University of Sheffield, a team embarked on a comprehensive assessment of Liesel's major joints.

The goal was ambitious: to use mesenchymal stem cells to address the alterations in her left hip and knee joints, potentially providing a novel solution to her osteoarthritis.

The science of hope

Osteoarthritis— a degenerative condition in which the cartilage in the joints breaks down— presents a formidable medical challenge. Once cartilage is damaged, the process becomes irreversible, and current treatments primarily focus on managing symptoms rather than targeting the root cause.

However, recent advances in stem cell therapy have showcased promising results in animal species such as dogs and horses. Small-scale clinical trials in humans have indicated its potential as a treatment for this debilitating condition.

Liesel's case marked a significant leap in this research. She became the first primate in the world to undergo stem cell therapy for osteoarthritis, successfully benefiting from the collaborative efforts of the international research team.

The use of mesenchymal stem cells, derived from fat tissue donated by a young female gorilla named N'yaounda, was a pivotal step in this groundbreaking procedure.

Mesenchymal tissues are those made up of loosely organized cells and extracellular matrix. Since these are undifferentiated, they can develop into different cell types, including bone, muscle, and cartilage cells.

These cells were isolated, purified, and cultured by the specialists at Stem CellX in Hungary to formulate a deep-frozen cell suspension ready for Liesel's treatment.

From animal wellness to human hope

Behind this remarkable success is Stem CellX, a company comprising international scientists specializing in stem cells, regenerative medicine, and genetics. Stem CellX was created with the vision of developing cutting-edge stem cell-based products for arthritis treatment in animals, following successful research trials on arthritis-affected dogs.

The company has also partnered with the Budapest Zoo, offering this innovative treatment to animals in need and supplying zoos worldwide.

Stem CellX was founded by Professor Endre Kiss-Tóth, a Cell Signaling expert at the University of Sheffield, in collaboration with Professor Mark Wilkinson. Their joint efforts extend to a preclinical program aimed at testing Stem CellX technologies for the development of a similar stem cell treatment for human patients.

"It has been a great privilege to be part of this world-first collaboration and bring together Stem CellX expertise in stem cell technologies with the internationally leading clinical skills and knowledge in osteoarthritis pathogenesis of the University of Sheffield," stated a jubilant Professor Kiss-Tóth. "We are now following her recovery closely, hoping to see a marked improvement in her movements and in the use of her osteoarthritis-affected leg," he added.

Professor Mark Wilkinson echoed the sentiment, saying, "I was delighted to be part of the team doing this groundbreaking work and having the opportunity to treat Liesel's arthritis. We are currently developing a similar treatment for humans. This work is in its very early stages but hopefully will lead to a real solution for patients to the pain and suffering that arthritis causes."

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