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Pitt nets praise for saving dolphin

| Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2004, 12:00 p.m.

Even the famous TV dolphin Flipper never received this much medical attention.

Liko, a 3-year-old male bottle-nosed dolphin, is back at play in a Hawaiian lagoon after tissue engineers from the University of Pittsburgh designed a protein "scaffold" to help repair a gash in his dorsal fin.

Liko tore the fin at Dolphin Quest, a swim-with-the-dolphins park in Waikoloa. These lacerations can be fatal to dolphins, which rely on their soft, cartilage-like dorsal fins for swimming, balance and body temperature regulation, said Dr. Rae Stone, Dolphin Quest veterinarian and co-owner.

But Liko's saltwater milieu and his penchant for flipping made stitches impractical.

Marine mammal veterinarians, surgeons, animal trainers and Pittsburgh tissue reconstruction scientists joined forces this summer to repair the 5-inch gash.

"We've done a lot of work in land animals, but never in a challenging environment where the animal is underwater all the time," said University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine tissue engineering expert Dr. Stephen Badylak.

Badylak helped to design an "extracellular matrix" made of proteins derived from pig urinary bladders.

Manufactured by Maryland-based ACell Inc., the matrix provided a 3-D scaffold that recruited new, healthy cells to fill in the wound without forming scar tissue.

This tissue regeneration procedure is used in about 250,000 people every year to treat ligament and tendon tears, incontinence and brain injuries, said Badylak, who also heads the Center for Pre-Clinical Tissue Engineering at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Three months after surgery --- with extra help from a waterproof sling and healing light-energy treatments --- Liko's fin is almost fully mended.

The procedure could be used in other veterinary applications such as repairing injured muscles in race horses, said Badylak, who hopes to visit his water-bound patient soon.

Updates to Liko's treatment regimen and his progress in recovery are posted at www.dolphinquest.org .

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