Researching turtle tumors in Flagler could help human medicine

Tumors are growing all over sea turtles' bodies on the First Coast.

FLAGLER COUNTY, Fla. -- Some sea turtles along the Florida and southern U.S. coastline are popping up with tumors all over their bodies. As a result, researchers are hoping to not only understand why, but also hope it will help humans.

On Tuesday, staff at the Sea Turtle Hospital at University of Florida's Whitney Lab for Marine Bioscience in Flagler County placed a struggling sea turtle onto an exam table. They said he had fibropapillomatosis, a disease specific to sea turtles.

"The tumor itself does not kill them, but it debilitates them by affecting their ability to swim and dive," said Brooke Burkhalter, the veterinarian at the Sea Turtle Hospital. "Often times, it grows over their eyes so it's difficult to see, feed appropriately, or escape predators." This could kill the turtles, Burkhalter said.

Every turtle at the Sea Turtle Hospital has tumors from the fibropapilloma virus. Scientists don't really know what causes the disease, but they know the tumors come from a type of herpes virus.

"The preliminary data we're getting so far indicates the tumors the turtles are getting are very similar to human tumors," said Dr. Mark Martindale, the director of the Whitney Bioscience Lab. He said human medical treatments are being used to help these turtles.

"We're trying to interrogate what the molecular features of the tumor itself are to see what the tumor will tell us  about what is promoting their growth," he said. This could possibly help human medical science, he said.

Turtles live to be about 100 years old. "This provides us a unique system to compare to human life spans," he said. "That say is much different to a mouse that lives a year or two years, and is not a particularly good model for long time interactions with local ecosystems and environment."

There is some good news when it comes to this disease and turtles. There is treatment and rehabilitation!

Two turtles, named Mean Joe Green and Tamatoa, had many tumors, but they've done so well at the hospital that they will be released this week.

"That's not to say that once they're in the wild, and exposed to the same kinds of noxious chemicals, for example, that these tumors might not re-appear," he said.

Researchers will continue to look into this debilitating disease, hoping to discover answers that could benefit both turtle and human.

© 2017 WTLV-TV


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