In an attempt to save the northern white rhinoceros from extinction through advanced assisted reproductive technologies, the scientists and conservationists of the BioRescue consortium place great emphasis on respecting the lives and well-being of the individual animals involved. In a special, in-depth ethical risk assessment, the team came to the decision to excrete the older of the two remaining women, 32-year-old Najin, as an egg donor.
That leaves the ambitious program with a woman who can deliver eggs, Najin’s daughter Fatu. The weighing of risks and opportunities for the individual and the species as a whole made this decision without alternative. This situation will further increase the need for stem cell-associated techniques, which are also part of the BioRescue mission, as is long-term biobanking. Najin will remain an important part of the mission as an ambassador of her own kind and by passing on social knowledge to future descendants.
Najin was born in 1989 in Safari Park DvÅ¯r KrÃ¡lovÃ© (Czech Republic) and was brought to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy (Kenya) for a natural breeding program in 2009 together with three other Northern White Rhinos. Five years later, scientists determined that the last chance for Najin and their ilk to survive lies in advanced assisted reproductive techniques carried out by the BioRescue consortium. This approach relies on obtaining egg cells from female northern white rhinoceroses that include hormone stimulation, general anesthesia and transrectal ultrasound-guided egg retrieval by BioRescue team in the most professional and reassuring way, there are risks to the animals â, says Jan Stejskal, director for international Projects in the Safari Park DvÅ¯r KrÃ¡lovÃ©.
âThe egg retrieval in Najin produced only a few egg cells and none of them could be successfully fertilized to become an embryo. When weighing this result against possible risks, the most responsible decision is to stop any further intervention on Najin and no longer use her as an egg donor. It will remain part of the program, for example by providing tissue samples for stem cell approaches that can be carried out with minimal invasion. “
This decision to stop egg collection from Najin was made under the direction of the Ethics Laboratory for Veterinary Medicine, Nature Conservation and Animal Welfare at the University of Padua. Prof. Barbara de Mori and her team came to this recommendation after they had analyzed all relevant ethical dimensions and desiderata and had several moderated discussions with all stakeholders involved. In addition, they evaluated all possible options using scientific methods such as decision trees and the Bateson Cube in order to underpin the expertise of the people involved with a systematic, objective perspective against the welfare of an individual animal, âsays Prof. Barbara de Mori.
“We identified the key decisions and the combinations of decisions the consortium might make and then ranked them in the light of desiderata such as avoiding major or minor accidents, the ability to repeat procedures and successful egg retrieval,” added Dr. Pierfrancesco Biasetti, scientist, also at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) and member of the ethics laboratory of the University of Padua.
It turned out that some scenarios have a high probability of fulfilling most of the desiderata, while others have rather low chances. This approach confirmed that given the circumstances, continuing egg retrieval or other possible options such as oophorectomy (to obtain potentially valuable biomaterial for future in vitro procedures) are ethically unacceptable.
From the beginning it was a central part of the work of the BioRescue project and its partners in the rescue mission of the northern white rhinoceros to consider all relevant ethical aspects of interventions Limits of what is feasible in nature conservation and that we also have to think about ethical and moral implications ” , says BioRescue project leader Prof. Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW). âEvery process in the program is accompanied by a full ethical risk assessment and we believe that we shouldn’t do anything just because we can. The development of clear ethical principles based on our knowledge, scientific expertise in animal welfare ethics and decision-making as well as vigilance towards social discourse is a fundamental basis of BioRescue. “
When considering the future role of Najin, this decision-making process was extremely difficult, as the experts involved took it from the perspective of the population, the focus on species protection, as well as from the perspective of the individual animals, the focus on animal welfare.
âRemoving a person from a nature conservation program for animal welfare reasons is usually not a question that needs to be thought about for a long time,â says Leibniz IZW chief veterinarianDr. Frank Goeritzand Ol Pejeta Chief Vet Dr. Stephen Ngulu. âBut if an individual makes up 50 percent of your population, consider this decision several times as it will have a significant impact on the prospects of the conservation program. Recent ultrasounds have shown several small, benign tumors in Najin’s cervix and uterus, and a large cystic structure 25 cm in diameter in her left ovary. These results could explain why the egg retrieval was not as successful from her as it was from Fatu. We have therefore come to the conclusion that the most valuable role for Najin is to be an ambassador for the preservation of her species and to ensure that she can transfer her social knowledge and behavior to her descendants in the foreseeable future. “
With Najin phasing out the first pillar of the BioRescue program (Advanced Assisted Reproductive Technologies, aART), the second pillar will become even more important. The aART relies on natural gametes for embryo formation, which means that both the egg cells and the sperm were obtained directly from the females and males of the northern white rhinoceros. Stem Cell Associated Techniques (SCAT), the second pillar of the mission, aim to create artificial gametes from stored tissue from northern white rhinos. For example, tissues such as skin cells collected by Najin could be converted into induced pluripotent stem cells, which could then be reprogrammed to develop into artificial gametes (egg cells or sperm). This highly developed technology, which was developed within the BioRescue consortium by internationally leading teams from Kyushu University and the Max DelbrÃ¼ck Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), makes it possible to significantly increase the number of gametes available for embryo production and can thereby be an essential multiplication factor.
In addition, it significantly diversifies the genetic reservoir of the assisted reproduction program. The SCAT are still up-to-date with rhino reproduction, but advances made by the teams at Kyushu and MDC are fueling hope that northern white embryos could be created from laboratory-generated gametes in the years to come.
“The ethical risk assessment used the best scientific approach aimed at ensuring the well-being of Najin given her advanced age and the pathological signs in her uterus,” says Dr. Patrick Omondi, Director of the Wildlife Research and Training Institute (Kenya).
“We are pleased to have participated in this assessment, which confirms the collaborative and innovative approaches of the BioRescue consortium to saving the species from extinction.”
Conservation has faced a multitude of challenges over the past few decades, and BioRescue has developed technologies that experts can use to address some of these challenges. The Kenyan government worked with various partners to promote species conservation through the use of technological advances. The northern white rhinoceros, although not native to the country, has found a home in Kenya.
âThe government, through the Department of Tourism and Wildlife, is committed to ensuring that wildlife is preserved and managed for current and future generations, both in Kenya and around the world, with a particular focus on ensuring that endangered species are not threatened with extinction are. That Najin did not produce a viable egg, which is compounded by her advanced age, we have no choice but to accept the fate of having to withdraw her from the aART program. However, we are encouraged that she will be with us long enough to have a positive impact on the next generations of NWR through her daughter Fatu’s descendants, âsaid Honorable Najib Balala, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, Kenya.
Given the ever-increasing challenges facing rhino conservation, the decision to retire Najin based on expert advice on health issues, advanced age and no successfully produced embryo from the 10 egg cells obtained in three egg collections was for Kenya Wildlife a Very Difficult Decision Service:
âHowever, we are convinced that KWS, as the government agency charged with protecting and managing the country’s wildlife, has made a significant contribution to the processes and efforts to save the northern white rhinoceros from extinction. We also believe that while Najin’s resignation is a difficult decision to make, it is the only correct option we have as we work with technical experts locally and internationally to explore opportunities that are brought about by novel Assisted reproductive technology to save the species from extinction, âsays Brigadier (Rtd.) John Waweru, Director General of the Kenya Wildlife Service.