A large portion of the Center for Conservation and Research efforts in Reproductive Sciences Department focuses on the African continent, specifically in South African and Kenya, ranging from research on wildlife, livestock as well as humans. Since 1994, Dr. Loskutoff, her staff and students have regularly traveled to South Africa to work on a variety of projects. Their base of operation has changed from centers at the Johannesburg Zoo, the Jubatus Cheetah Reserve in the Limpopo Province, and currently plans are being developed to establish a center of operation with the South African National Parks Board.
Semen Decontamination Technology
Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo Reproductive Physiologist, Dr. Naida Loskutoff developed this novel technology to conserve and expand the genetic diversity of rare and endangered hoofstock in zoos by assisted reproductive technology rather than capturing and transporting live animals. In order to expand the gene pool of a captive population of a rare African antelope species, a zoo would have to bring new breeders from the wild into the U. S. However, in order to protect our U.S. domestic livestock industry, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires a very long and costly quarantine process to make sure the animal does not bring in infectious diseases. Unfortunately Africa and much of Asia and South America are infected with viral diseases such as hoof and mouth disease and rhinderpest which could decimate our livestock industry.
It would be faster and less expensive to simply import frozen semen into the U.S. to artificially inseminate captive females. Unfortunately fresh and frozen semen can carry disease agents. Dr. Loskutoff's passion for reproduction led her to a novel idea. She first added an enzyme to a semen washing and filtration process she was developing. She then designed plastic ware that when used with the enzyme-washing-filtration process, separates healthy sperm cells cleaned from the infectious agents, thereby making the procedure fool-proof to do even a field lab. Because of this unique patented procedure, male animals do not need to be captured, transported and quarantined at great cost. Only the frozen processed semen needs to be transported. It is hoped that this original research will attract the attention of USDA regulatory officials and similar decision makers world wide.
In an interesting turn of events the process works equally well on human diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. The South African government (Medical Research Council) supported most of the human research on HIV and hepatitis which was conducted in South Africa. Clinical trials are now scheduled to begin as soon as possible in Europe. It is possible that a project designed to benefit rare and endangered hoofstock species in U.S. zoos may have very beneficial implications for humans and livestock as well.
In May, 2007 the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office approved the Omaha Zoo's request for a patent on this semen decontamination procedure. The procedure is now being used in field trials with livestock and clinical trials in humans and has been given exclusive rights to a company for eventual marketing of a product that was never before available to human, livestock and wildlife programs.
Determining the Efficacy of the Novel Semen Disinfection Procedure for Eliminating HIV and Hepatitis B and C Viruses from the Semen of Infected Humans
Because of the high prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV and hepatitis in South Africa, there was a great interest by clinicians and embryologists working at human fertility centers to test the novel decontamination procedure on the semen of infected men. It was found that the procedure was not only effective in removing these viruses, but it was equally effective for a variety of other organisms (e.g., bacterial and other microbial agents) without any detrimental effects to sperm viability. This research was funded mostly by the Medical Research Council in South Africa and plans are currently in place to establish centers to provide this treatment for couples seeking assisted conception. The application of the procedure to humans will help regulatory officials internationally recognize the merit of the procedure for decontaminating semen which is hoped would eventually lead to a lessening of restrictions for the import/export of semen for use in assisted reproduction in livestock and wildlife.
Determining the Efficacy of a Novel Semen Decontamination Procedure for Indigenous African Cattle Breeds
Some of the initial experiments testing the efficacy of the semen decontamination procedure were also also conducted on indigenous breeds of African cattle (e.g., Ankole, see photograph below). These experiments were designed not only to determine the effectiveness of the procedure for removing potential pathogens from bull semen (bacteria, viruses and various microbial agents) but to examine if the procedure had any detrimental effects on sperm after artificial insemination, which is a multi-million dollar industry worldwide for the genetic improvement of livestock.
Disease Management in Cape Buffalo through Assisted Reproduction
This field project in Kruger National Park in South Africa focuses on using the semen decontamination procedure to cryobank semen from diseased African buffalo for the long-term genetic management of the species.