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Scientists search for cure to help manatees fight sickness caused by red tide

Posted at 9:02 PM, Sep 07, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-07 23:14:27-04

Florida International University and Mote Marine Laboratory are developing new and more efficient ways to treat manatees exposed to toxic red tide.

Both research facilities were awarded a $428,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to launch the three-year project to improve veterinary care for rescued manatees.

“It does impact the manatee's immune system it causes immune compromise in the manatees,” Dr. Cathy Walsh said.  Walsh is the Manager MOTE’s Marine Immunology Program.  Walsh has studied the impacts of red tide on manatees for more than a decade.

Walsh said while some manatees die from the toxin found in the red tide, other manatees get sick.

“It induces a harmful phenomenon in the manatee's immune system called oxidative stress which is basically the release of harmful molecules that effect the manatee's ability to resist disease and cause inflammation and other harmful effects on the immune system,” Walsh said.  “What we are trying to do is take our knowledge of how the toxin causes this oxidative stress because we actually know that it binds to a specific enzyme in the immune system.”

This is the first study of it’s kind targeting that specific enzyme in the immune system.

“I’m very excited about this project,” Walsh said.  “We are trying to focus on trying to increase the survival of the ones we are able to rescue and make that a more efficient and successful process.”

More than 575 manatees have already died this year including 103 suspected or confirmed red tide cases.  According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, this surpasses the total of 538 from 2017.

Once all the lab work is completed scientists hope to have a medicine available to test on sick manatees.