U.S. Army medical team helps Smithsonian National Zoo to protect endangered Red Pandas

Cover photo: A red panda, taken by Mathias Appel. Public domain.

FREDERICK (Fort Detrick), MD News (12/13/2022) – A U.S. Army medical team contributed to an investigation into the cause of death of a Red Panda at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI).

The findings will ultimately help to protect the endangered species.

Maj. Mathanraj Packiam, PhD, from the 1st Area Medical Laboratory and U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), worked with Maj. Jeffrey R. Kugelman and Raina Kumar from the Center for Genomics; Dr. Janice Williams, Lt. Col. Curtis R. Cline and Col. Paul R. Facemire from the USAMRIID Department of Pathology; and Dr. Neel Aziz, a veterinary pathologist at NZCBI on the investigation.

“Red Pandas are endangered and legally protected in India, Bhutan, China, Nepal and Myanmar,” said Dr. Aziz. “Their primary threats are habitat loss and degradation, human interference and poaching. Learning the specific genus and species of pathogens that affect Red Pandas will help conservation medicine at the wildlife domestic animal interface and wildlife human interface.”

The USAMRIID’s pathology team conducted transmission electron microscopy studies on Formalin-Fixed, Paraffin-Embedded (FFPE) tissue from the Red Panda’s brain in an effort to identify and speciate the protozoa in the brain tissue.

The USAMRIID’s genomics team extracted the DNA from FFPE brain sections and performed sequencing and identified the protozoa to the species level, said Packiam, who earned his doctoral degree in Microbiology and Immunology from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia.

Packiam said the mission was special because of the agent and sample type.

“Pathogen discovery or detection of an unknown pathogenic agent in a sample is my passion,” said Packiam. “The primary suspected agent at the beginning of the investigation was Toxoplasma gondii, for which cats serve as the most likely source of infection in a zoo setting.

“After the identification of Sarcocystis neurona as the etiological agent, for which opossum is the most likely source of infection, the zoo could take appropriate measures to protect the Red Pandas,” said Packiam.

Originally from Trichy, India, Packiam spends his time between the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland-based 1st Area Medical Laboratory and the Fort Detrick, Maryland-based U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Packiam recently passed the demanding American Board of Medical Microbiology exam that has a historical 20 percent success rate for non-fellowship candidates. The six-and-a-half hour, computer-based exam has 200 multiple choice questions on clinical lab testing, administration, safety, security and consulting functions.

The 1st Area Medical Laboratory is part of the 44th Medical Brigade and 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives (CBRNE) Command, the U.S. Department of Defense’s premier all hazards formation. Soldiers and U.S. Army civilians from 20th CBRNE Command deploy from 19 bases in 16 states to take on the world’s most dangerous hazards in support of joint, interagency and allied operations.

Headquartered on Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, the 1st Area Medical Laboratory deploys worldwide to perform surveillance, confirmatory analytical laboratory testing and health hazards assessments of environmental, occupational, endemic and CBRNE threats in support of force protection and Weapons of Mass Destruction missions.

In addition to serving at 1st AML, Packiam serves as the officer-in-charge of Bio-Surveillance at USAMRIID, the U.S. Army’s main institute for defensive research into medical countermeasures against biological warfare.

According to Packiam, future collaborations with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute are planned to diagnosis emerging infectious diseases in zoo and wildlife species.

“Identification of unknown etiological agents in the sample plays an important role both as a clinical microbiologist working in hospital as well as a subject matter expert working towards theater-level validation for the 1st Area Medical Laboratory,” said Packiam.

Original article by Walter Ham, 20th CBRNE Command.

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