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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — An illness that may be the most common cause of death among young elephants in American zoos is being studied at the University of Tennessee.

 Melissa Kennedy and Steve Kania at the UT College of Veterinary Medicine are part of a national effort to identify and treat the disease.

 Their involvement goes back to 1995 when 16-month-old Kumari, the first elephant born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., died of an unknown illness.

 They were asked to join the case by Dr. Laura Richman, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins University. Richman did her residency at UT.

 “Dr. Richman got in on the Kumari investigation early, and knowing our laboratory and our interest in exotic animals, she decided to utilize us,” said Kennedy.

 One of the most significant findings in the investigation has come from Richard Garber, a Seattle-based virologist whose DNA testing showed a possible link to the herpes family of viruses.

In a more recent development, veterinarians successfully treated a seriously ill 17-month-old elephant at Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo.

 The doctors used large doses of famciclovir — a drug used to fight shingles and genital herpes in humans.

 Although the animal still has traces of the virus in her body, symptoms such as loss of appetite and a purplish, bruised-looking tongue, have disappeared, her doctors said.

 The recovery supports the possibility of a herpes-type virus, Kennedy said.

 “The symptoms may disappear, but the virus remains in the body in a latent state,” Kennedy said. “If the virus should come out of latency, there’s the potential for the infection of other animals. That’s one reason why it’s so important to find out what kind of virus it is.”

 Kennedy has sought to identify and grow the mystery virus in cell cultures. Kania, an immunologist, has worked to make reagents — substances used to detect antibodies that may be associated with viruses known to scientists.

 Growing the virus in the laboratory has proved difficult, Kennedy said.

 “It can be a problem to get a virus that grows well in an animal to grow well in a cell culture, which is what we do to isolate it,” Kennedy said.

 Reagents also are a problem.

 “For dogs or cats, reagents are commercially available because the demand is so high,” Kennedy said. “For elephants, we must make our own.”

 Although only 100 elephants have been born in captivity in this century, researchers think Kumari at the National Zoo and seven other elephants in North America — plus one at the Zurich Zoo in Europe — may have died from the virus.

 John Lehnhardt, a curator at the National Zoo, believes the illness may turn out to be the major serious disease in young elephants.

 Since Kumari’s death in Washington, Richman has worked almost full time on the investigation, with her salary paid in part from a special fund-raising campaign by the National Zoo.

 Contact: Dr. Melissa Kennedy (423-974-5643)