A team of veterinarians, staff, and volunteers at Mystic Aquarium led by a UConn Health Center physician performed dialysis on a 2,300-pound beluga whale with kidney failure and were able to keep him alive for two weeks.
The team, under the leadership of Dr. Andre Kaplan, chief of blood purification at John Dempsey Hospital and medical director of the UConn Dialysis Center, used an approach called intestinal dialysis, essentially using the bowel as a substitute kidney. The whale ingested a chemical solution that flushed out waste products and was then re-infused with injected fluids in order to correct abnormal chemistries. This was done five times a day, and required a dozen sets of hands to execute.
The whale, named Inuk, died on day 15. Dr. Allison Tuttle, the aquarium’s chief veterinarian, concluded it was unlikely that the cause of death was due to kidney failure, and were it not for additional conditions, the dialysis treatment would have been sufficient to control the renal failure.
Kaplan says he and the aquarium staff agree that the procedure was successful in its goal, which was “to take care of the potassium, acidosis, and nitrogen waste products associated with kidney failure. It worked as a kidney replacement therapy. This has never been done.”
According to a study published in 1994 (D.M. Ward, Proceedings of the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine), peritoneal dialysis, a different type of kidney replacement therapy, had previously been tried unsuccessfully in a pilot whale. Kaplan says that, given the positive results obtained with intestinal dialysis, veterinarians can consider the method used on Inuk as a viable treatment option in the future.
“The type of acute kidney failure which Inuk had is commonly reversible,” Kaplan says. “If the whale had survived another few weeks, it’s likely his own kidneys would have healed. The anticipated goals of the therapy were met. We have very good data that show this.”
The data indicate marked improvements in the whale’s blood urea nitrogen, potassium, and bicarbonate levels.
“This treatment is the first of its kind for acute renal failure in a beluga whale, and is a significant contribution to the field of marine mammal medicine,” says Dr. Tracy Romano, senior vice president of research and zoological operations at Mystic Aquarium.
Kaplan is preparing a presentation for the annual meeting of the American Society of Nephrology this fall in Denver.