Public Release: 

Study of manatee virus could help fight human cervical cancer

Harbor Branch scientist & veterinarian working with cancer specialists

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution

FORT PIERCE, FL., Aug. 22, 2002 - A HARBOR BRANCH scientist who discovered a virus in manatees similar to the one that causes cervical cancer in humans is hoping the research he and other experts carry out this week will eventually benefit both manatees and humans.

Dr. Greg Bossart, Director of Marine Mammal Research and Conservation at HARBOR BRANCH, will be drawing blood samples and performing biopsies on tissue and tumors from several infected manatees at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park.

"The way this virus produces in manatees is similar to the way it produces in cervical cancer in humans. It's a fascinating opportunity to learn more not only about the pathogenesis of this virus in manatees but also an opportunity to develop an approach to fighting the virus which I think is eventually going to benefit humans as well," Dr. Bossart said.

Dr. Bossart and Dr. Mark Lowe, Homosassa Springs State Park staff veterinarian, will be joined at Homosassa Springs this week by Dr. Bennett Jenson, a human papillomavirus expert from Brown Cancer Center at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, and Dr. Partha Basu, head of gynecological oncology at the National Cancer Institute of India, a country that has very high rates of cervical cancer among its female population. Both doctors are experts in the field of human cervical cancer and are committed to a collaborative research project involving the manatees.

Dr. Bossart and his colleagues were recently successful in cloning the virus, a medical first, and another step which takes them closer to learning how the virus produces and multiplies.

It's been more than four years since Dr. Bossart first discovered the virus in manatees, a discovery made all the more surprising because these gentle marine mammals have a so-called "super" immune system, one that seems to be able to fend off almost any disease. Dr. Bossart said that's another fascinating part of the puzzle that could eventually steer researchers towards finding cures for other diseases.

"The manatee immune system is really extraordinary, and it's my hope that our work could eventually point the way toward a better understanding of the immune system and therefore a better understanding of diseases like HIV/AIDS," Dr. Bossart said.

A federal permit has been granted to allow moving the manatees to HARBOR BRANCH Oceanographic Institution's main campus within five years, and efforts have already begun to raise the approximately $6 million it will take to build a modern 600,000-gallon manatee rehabilitation facility at HARBOR BRANCH.

Melding the study of disease processes in mammals such as the manatee with the study of disease processes in humans is taking researchers in entirely new directions, and Dr. Bossart and his colleagues are taking the lead in this cutting-edge discipline with studies such as this one. Dr. Bossart says he's "extremely optimistic" about what will eventually result.

For more information, please call Geoff Oldfather, HARBOR BRANCH Director of Public Relations, at 561.465.2400, ext. 206, or on his cell phone at 561.216.1458. Dr. Bossart is available at 305.804.6730.

HARBOR BRANCH Oceanographic Institution is one of the world's leading nonprofit oceanographic research organizations dedicated to exploration of the earth's oceans, estuaries and coastal regions for the benefit of mankind.


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