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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Dolphin doing 'fantastic' after regenerative procedure on fin

By Christie Wilson
Neighbor Island Editor

A bottlenosed dolphin injured while roughhousing with other dolphins at a Big Island resort is on the mend after benefiting from the latest advances in human regenerative medicine.

Liko, with Dolphin Quest training director George Biedenbach, is back to work and socializing with other dolphins.

Associated Press

Liko, a 3-year-old male dolphin who was born at the Dolphin Quest program at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, suffered a tear at the base of his dorsal fin, which consists of soft, cartilage-like tissue. A team of veterinarians, medical researchers, dolphin trainers and a cosmetic surgeon worked on the animal July 30 to perform soft-tissue repair using an extracellular matrix, the first time the procedure has been used on a marine mammal.

The technique was developed by Dr. Stephen Badylak, a research professor at the University of Pittsburgh. The matrix works like a three-dimensional scaffold and is void of cells but has structural and functional proteins still intact. Once in place, the matrix "recruits" cells for tissue remodeling without scarring.

The extracellular matrix used in Liko's procedure was derived from pig urinary bladder and was custom-designed for the dolphin by Badylak and his team, in consultation with Dolphin Quest co-owners and veterinarians Rae Stone and Jay Sweeney.

The procedure has been used successfully to repair wounds, tendons and ligaments on horses and small animals, and to treat sea turtles injured by boats, said Badylak, who was uncertain whether it would work in dolphins. A major challenge, he said, was keeping the matrix patch in place on an active dolphin in a saltwater environment. The medical team employed a sling specially designed by Otter Bay Wetsuits to protect the patch.

Badylak said Liko has been making "fantastic" progress and is well on his way to healing.

Dolphin Quest attending veterinarian Gregg Levine said that without the procedure, Liko likely would have faced a partial amputation of his dorsal fin because the injury was too severe to heal properly on its own.

The dolphin started LED (light-emitting diode) therapy in September, with equipment donated by Thor Laser & LED Therapy. Every day for about two to three minutes per treatment, trainers use an LED wand to emit light pulses that stimulate tissue growth and regeneration in Liko's injured fin.

Kurt Allen, general manager of Dolphin Quest Hawai'i, said Liko already is back to work and socializing with other dolphins.

"The dorsal fin is really important to the lifestyle of dolphins, and to be able to treat it and not have him lose it was extremely important," Allen said.

Badylak said Liko's successful treatment provided valuable information that could benefit zoo veterinarians. "What it tells us is that there are really basic survival mechanisms that are present across all species lines," he said.

Stone and Sweeney led the team that performed the procedure, which included Levine; cosmetic surgeon Dr. Paul Faringer of Kona, who prepared the wound for treatment; veterinary technician Abby Simmons-Byrd of ACell Inc.; Dr. Melyni Worth of Thor Laser & LED Therapy; and George Biedenbach, director of animal management at Dolphin Quest Hawai'i.

Reach Christie Wilson at (808) 244-4880 or cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.