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SOS Rhino : Research, Projects and Grants : Grants 2000 : Black Rhino Disease : Black Rhino RBC metabolism


"Black Rhinoceros red blood cell (RBC) metabolism"



Dr. Eric H. Hurley
Professor of Chemical Pathology


Department of Chemical Pathology
Medical School, University of Cape Town

Our recent work on Black Rhinoceros red blood cell (RBC) metabolism has revealed a unique metabolic process in which very high intracellular levels of the free amino acid tyrosine assist in elimination of ambient oxidants such as hydrogen peroxide.

The subsequent observation of lower levels of RBC tyrosine in captive than in in situ animals, and the additional observation of an inverse relationship between ferritin levels (reflecting iron overload) and RBC tyrosine levels, pointed very strongly to a pathology caused by oxygen free radicals, consequent to iron overload, in which defense processes including the scavenging of oxidants by RBC tyrosine proved insufficient.

The research design of this project therefore aims to comprehensively define the processes by which tyrosine in the Black Rhinoceros RBC eliminates ambient oxidants. It will also compare this process in other rhino species known to possess high RBC tyrosine, confirm (or otherwise) its unique presence in the Rhinocerotidae, confirm the specificity for these reactions to the red blood cell, and investigate any interaction with iron or copper ions.

Measurements of RBC ATP will proceed in parallel. In collaboration with laboratories in the USA, serum iron, TIBC, and ferritin, as well as RBC tyrosine, dityrosine and ATP will be compared both in wild rhinos in Southern Africa and in captive animals in the USA, to confirm the suspected inverse relationship between iron overload and RBC tyrosine and to confirm their association with the various disease states.

This information should lead to a final phase in which the effect of dietary factors such as iron chelators and antioxidants can be studied, monitoring ferritin and RBC tyrosine levels in particular, to determine whether introduction of such dietary components to the feed of captive Black Rhinoceroses can prevent or treat the common disease states.


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