‘Liko Is One Lucky Big Island Dolphin’

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Preview Hawaii -- HawaiiÂ?s Dolphin Quest Â?Dolphin LikoÂ?- One Very Lucky Dolphin

An expert team of marine mammal veterinarians, medical researchers, cosmetic surgeons and dolphin trainers recently joined forces to apply the latest advances in human regenerative medicine in an attempt to restore a bottlenose dolphin’s damaged dorsal fin.

“Liko’s story is a story of medicine with a big heart,” said Dr. Rae Stone, a Dolphin Quest veterinarian and co-owner. “It shows extraordinary voluntary cooperation across several human medical and veterinary disciplines that has involved numerous experts with cutting-edge technology and specialized experience. Liko is one very lucky young dolphin.”

The procedure on Liko, a three-year-old male dolphin at Dolphin Quest on Hawaii’s Big Island, took place on July 30 and marked the first-ever marine mammal application of extracellular matrix tissue repair. Liko (pronounced Lee-ko) continues to undergo pioneering veterinary LED (light emitting diode) therapy to stimulate tissue growth and regeneration in his injured fin.

Liko sustained a tear at the base of his dorsal (top) fin, likely in a game of “chase” with his dolphin cohorts. While wild dolphins have been observed with similar and more severe lacerations that can result in eventual loss of the dorsal fin, Dolphin Quest veterinarians organized the groundbreaking procedure in an effort to keep as much of Liko’s dorsal fin intact as possible. A dolphin's dorsal fin consists of soft, cartilage-like tissue.


“Liko’s progress has been fantastic and he’s well on his way to healing completely,” said Dr. Steve Badylak, the University of Pittsburgh tissue engineering expert enlisted by Dolphin Quest. “The things we’ve learned working together to save Liko’s dorsal fin will help other dolphins in the future and many, many other animals of all kind, as Liko’s story helps introduce the concept of regenerative medicine to the veterinary field.”

The use of extracellular matrix for the repair of soft tissues was developed by Dr. Stephen Badylak, research professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of the Center for Pre-Clinical Tissue Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Once in place, the matrix, a 3-dimensional scaffold void of cells but with structural and functional proteins still intact, serves to recruit the appropriate cells for tissue remodeling without producing scarring.

The extracellular matrix used in Liko’s procedure was derived from pig urinary bladder and provided by ACell™ Inc., which Dr. Badylak and his team at the University of Pittsburgh custom-designed for Liko in consultation with veterinarians Dr. Stone and Dr. Jay Sweeney, Dolphin Quest co-owners.

A major challenge the team faced was keeping the application in place on an active dolphin in a saltwater lagoon environment. The medical team employed a specially-designed sling custom-made by Otter Bay Wetsuits to protect the extracellular matrix patch.

Drs. Stone and Sweeney led the team that performed the procedure, which included Dolphin Quest veterinarian Dr. Gregg Levine, cosmetic surgeon Dr. Paul Faringer of Kona, Hawaii, veterinary technician Abby Simmons-Byrd, research and development manager for ACell, Inc, Dr. Melyni Worth of Thor Laser & LED Therapy, and George Biedenbach, Director of Animal Management at Dolphin Quest Hawaii.


Liko’s Light Emitting Diode (LED) therapy treatments began in September with equipment donated by Dr. Worth. LED wavelengths are longer than laser light and penetrate deeper to increase energy metabolism at the cellular level. Liko is the first known marine mammal to receive LED therapy for tissue regeneration and the results to date are promising.

“His recovery since the start of LED work is excellent,” said Dr. Worth. “It was a big turnaround for him. Before the LED work he was looking a little worrisome.

“Liko’s story absolutely holds promise for other dolphins and other species, and most of all for humans. In Europe, LED/laser therapy is fairly well appreciated for the treatment of wounds in humans, but has been fairly slow coming to the U.S., and has only just been given any kind of clearance for human use here,” she continued.

Though LED light is three times brighter than the sun, the medical treatment wands are cool to the touch, highly portable to use and do not damage skin of dolphins or humans. Thermal imagery revealed patterns of increased vascular development in Liko’s dorsal fin and more rapid healing following application of localized LED therapy.

Human cosmetic surgeon Dr. Faringer performed the initial procedure in July that prepped Liko’s wound for the sequence of fin-saving treatments to follow. But all agree the most important member of the dolphin’s expert medical team is Liko, himself. The young dolphin’s calm comportment in human care allowed the initial surgery and weeks of groundbreaking intensive regenerative therapies.

“An important part of our animal care and training is building a relationship of mutual trust and conditioning our dolphins to being touched and treated by their veterinarians and trainers,” said Biedenbach, Liko’s training director at Dolphin Quest Hawaii. “Liko’s cooperation makes him a key member of his own medical team and has gone a long way to improve his chances of a successful recovery.”


Liko’s dorsal fin continues its remarkable healing as the young dolphin continues to participate in his pioneering regenerative therapies in a quiet lagoon alongside the Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort. Veterinarians are excited by his progress, but caution that Liko still has a ways to go on the road to recovery.

“When we first put Liko’s medical team and treatment plan together, we were outwardly hopeful, but harbored some serious doubts that we would be able to save this dolphin’s dorsal fin,” said Dolphin Quest veterinarian Stone. “But Liko surprised us all. Today we’re optimistic that his fin will eventually be fully restored and strong enough to stand up to the rigors of a robust male dolphin lifestyle.”


Carrie Riley

Preview Hawaii




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