Boris the polar bear, 32, receives stem cell treatment

color photo of Boris the polar bear Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

Dr. Valerie Johnson described Boris as an amazing, majestic creature. “The size of his paws are unbelievable,” she said. Photo: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

He’s 32 years old, which makes Boris the polar bear an elder statesman at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Washington state. Similar to other elderly animals — and people — he has developed arthritis in his old age. Boris recently received a stem cell treatment for his arthritis, thanks to Dr. Valerie Johnson, a veterinarian at Colorado State University.

He’s the first polar bear in the world to receive this type of medical treatment, according to zoo veterinarians.

Johnson grew the stem cells in a lab at CSU, using fatty tissue from the bear. She flew to Tacoma, Washington, in November 2017, once the cells were ready for transplant. Johnson repeated the process, working with the medical team at the zoo, one month later.

She had never been close to a polar bear before, and described Boris as an amazing, majestic creature. “The size of his paws are unbelievable,” she said, adding that they are nearly five times the size of a human hand. “I was honored to try to help him.”

Clinicians at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium said that they’ve seen a slight improvement in Boris’ arthritis, but nothing dramatic. Johnson said the best scenario would be to use fat cells from a young polar bear for this type of treatment. Blood or fat cells are used to grow stem cells in the lab.

“Our goal is to get the word out about stem cell treatments for arthritis in animals, and to perhaps get a bigger number of patients to determine if it’s an effective treatment,” Johnson said.

Dr. Karen Wolf, head veterinarian at the zoo, said it was rewarding to take something she learned at a conference — which is how she met CSU’s Johnson, who gave a presentation on stem cells — and apply that knowledge to help one of the zoo’s aging animals.

“This type of cross-disciplinary collaboration is very rewarding because it allows us to provide the best possible care for our incredible zoo animals and has the potential to help other bears in the future,” she said.

Johnson, who is working on a doctorate in microbiology, is a fellow in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology at CSU. Through her research with stem cells, she’s helped treat elephants, snow leopards, a mountain lion, an African tiger, a coyote and a giraffe.

Stem cell therapy treats infections, arthritis

Johnson works with Dr. Steve Dow to study stem cells’ ability to fight off multidrug-resistant infections. They’ve found that they can clear infections in many dogs by using intravenous stem cell therapy. Dogs enrolled in a clinical trial not only had their infections clear up, but clinicians also heard from older dogs’ owners that the animals were jumping around, behaving like much younger dogs.

This was not a huge surprise, said Johnson, since stem cells are known to have anti-inflammatory effects and have been used for arthritis. But the difference is that in previous studies, the stem cells were injected into the affected joint instead of being introduced intravenously.

CSU veterinarians are currently working with physicians at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to start a clinical trial for humans, based on the success seen with dogs.