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Stem cells generated locally help blind sea lion at SeaWorld see

Posted: 4:44 PM, Oct 18, 2016
Updated: 2016-10-18 19:44:05-04

SAN DIEGO - SeaWorld is turning to stem cells harvested in the labs of local biotech companies to heal its park animals.

Last week, 10News anchor Itica Milanes was given an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look as a sea lion was given second chance at life thanks to the unique medical treatment.

SeaWorld has rescued thousands of sea lions through the years, with most stranded or starving. Recently, one that washed up in La Jolla had a much bigger problem -- the young male sea lion was almost blind.

Park veterinarian Dr. Todd Schmitt said, "We're not sure of the underlying cause. There may be some underlying trauma. It's basically creating a haze across the cornea that is causing vision impairment for this animal."

SeaWorld caretakers realized he couldn't see, so he couldn't catch any fish. In the wild, he would starve to death or be easy prey.

"So this is general anesthesia, like you or I would have," Schmitt said prior to beginning the procedure.

Jennifer Haselow moved to San Diego from the Midwest nearly four years ago to be a vet tech at SeaWorld. She said, "So being a part of the rescue program is honestly a little girl's dream come true."

Her team, improving the quality of life for marine life, is giving them a second chance at life.

"It makes me feel great. It's a very rewarding feeling," Haselow said.

With hundreds of local biotech companies in the San Diego area, the SeaWorld medical team explored some unusual options to help restore this sea lion's sight.

"We're basically using a treatment of injecting stem cells," said Schmitt.

The stem cells are generated in Poway, and the hope is they'll stimulate the growth of new, healthier cells in the sea lion's eyes, allowing him to see again.

This is the first sea lion to be treated with stem cells, but park veterinarians have used them before in other animals. They have been used in the joints of older penguins in the park who are living longer and suffering from arthritis. So far, the unique therapy is working.

Haselow said, "If we can do a trial treatment with this animal and we can improve his sight then it has implications for helping all of our animals."

SeaWorld was able to track the success of the stem cell procedure by how the sea lion was able to chase live fish in a pool, and it worked. The sea lion recovered his sight and SeaWorld was able to release it back into the ocean.