Back from the dead? Stem cells give hope for resuscitation of the extinct rhinos of Malaysia

KUANTAN, Malaysia (Reuters) – Some skin, egg and tissue samples are all left over from Malaysia’s last rhino, Iman, who died last November after years of failed breeding efforts.

Now scientists are pinning their hopes on experimental stem cell technology to bring back the Malaysian variant of the Sumatran rhinoceros, using cells from Iman and two other dead rhinos.

“I am very confident,” said molecular biologist Muhammad Lokman Md Isa Reuters in his laboratory at the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

“If everything works, works well and everyone supports us, it’s not impossible.”

The Sumatran species was the smallest among the rhinos of the world, in 2015. It became extinct in the wild in Malaysia in 2015. Once upon a time it roamed Asia, but hunting and forest clearing reduced its numbers to just 80 in neighboring Indonesia. .

Iman, 25, died in a nature reserve on the island of Borneo, after massive blood loss caused by uterine tumors, within six months after the death of the last male rhino from Malaysia, Tam.

Attempts to breed the two had not worked.

“He was the equivalent of a 70-year-old man, so you obviously don’t expect sperm to be that good,” said John Payne of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), which has been campaigning for rhinos for nearly four decades. to rescue Malaysia.

“It was clear that in order to increase the chances of success, we need to get sperm and eggs from the rhinos in Indonesia. But to this day, Indonesia is still not fond of it. ”

A researcher prepares Sumatran Rhinoceros cells for research at a laboratory at the International Islamic University, in Kuantan, Malaysia June 30, 2020. REUTERS / Lim Huey Teng


Indonesia’s environment ministry has denied allegations of border rivalry as a reason why Malaysia’s rhinos have died, and said talks are ongoing on ways to work with conservatives in the neighboring Southeast Asian nation.

“Because this is part of diplomatic relations, implementation must be in line with the regulations of each country,” said Indra Exploitasia, director of the Ministry of Biodiversity Conservation.

The Malaysian scientists plan to use dead rhinoceros cells to produce sperm and eggs that infect red tubers to implant in a living animal or a closely related species, such as the horse.

The plan is similar to one for the African northern white rhinoceros, which are just two. Researchers in that effort reported some success in 2018 in producing embryonic stem cells for the southern white rhino.

But the process is still far from producing a whole new animal, say Thomas Hildebrandt and Cesare Galli, the scientists leading the research.

And even if it worked, the lack of genetic diversity of the animals could be a threat to long-term survival, Galli told Reuters.

Indonesian scientist Arief Boediono is among those helping in Malaysia, hoping that success will provide lessons to help his rhinos.

“It could take five, 10, 20 years, I do not know,” Arief added. “But there has already been some success with labs in Japan, so that means there is a chance.”

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Japanese researchers have grown teeth and organs such as the pancreas and kidneys that use embryonic stem cells from rats and mice in attempts to grow replacement human organs.

For now, however, Iman’s skin will be filled in and displayed next to Tam in a Borneo museum.

Edited by Matthew Tostevin and Clarence Fernandez

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