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A University of Tennessee scientist’s identification of a virus that’s killing baby Asian elephants has led to treatment that is saving the animals’ lives.

Dr. Melissa Kennedy, a virologist and instructor in UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine, identified the herpes virus that recently killed at least eight baby elephants in zoos.

Dr. Laura Richman, a Johns Hopkins University pathologist, used Kennedy’s findings to develop a treatment using the anti-herpes drug, famciclovir.

Two sick elephants treated with the drug have been the only ones to survive the viral infection, Kennedy said.

“Dr. Richman suspected it might be a herpes virus and our tests were able to confirm that,” Kennedy said. “Identifying the disease as a herpes virus has proven instrumental in saving these elephants.”

In 1995 Richman began studying the elephants’ deaths. She called on Kennedy, with whom she had worked while a resident at the UT vet school.

Kennedy and Dr. Steve Kania, an immunologist at the veterinary college, conducted all the virology assays and cultures for the project.

The scientists’ work was reported recently in the journal Science.