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Could stem cells save snow leopards?

MONASH U. (AUS) — Scientists have produced embryonic stem-like cells from the tissue of an adult snow leopard for the first time.

Never before have induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which share many of the useful properties of embryonic stem cells, been generated from a member of the cat family.

The breakthrough raises the possibility of cryopreservation of genetic material for future cloning and other assisted reproduction techniques, and offers hope for the survival of the endangered species, say the Monash University researchers.

The study, published in the journal Theriogenology, was led by graduate student Rajneesh Verma, and was supervised by senior researcher Paul Verma. The researchers used ear tissue samples taken from adult snow leopards at Mogo Zoo, in New South Wales, to generate the iPS cells.

Verma says the breakthrough was significant due to the difficulty of obtaining reproductive cells, or gametes, even from animals in captivity.

“There is a lot of interest in cryopreservation of tissue from endangered species, but for this to be useful for conservation, both sperm and an egg are required.”

“The power of stem cells is that they can differentiate into all the cell types in the body. This means, they have the potential to become gametes. In fact, mouse iPS cells have given rise to entire off-spring, so the possibilities are enormous,” Verma says.

Verma says the benefits of the breakthrough for the conservation of cat species, and biodiversity, were clear.

“By generating these stem cells, we’ve taken the first step in creating reproductive cells from adult tissues of an endangered animal.

“In the future, we aim to harness the potential of the iPS cells and create offspring. This would help save species from extinction,” Verma says.

The snow leopard is a large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia. Their high-altitude habitat and shy nature make accurate population counts difficult, but it is estimated that between 3500 and 7000 snow leopards exist in the wild, with numbers on the decline.

Verma says he became fascinated with large cats during his childhood in India.

“I’m really following my passion in applying my expertise in stem cells to help save these animals. I am applying the same techniques to other members of cat family, including the Bengal tiger, the jaguar, and the serval.”

Associate Professor Peter Temple-Smith of Monash and Professor Michael Holland of the University of Queensland also collaborated on the study.

More news from Monash University: www.monash.edu.au/news/

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