What killed Knut? Study of­fers ‘clo­sure’

The China Post - - LIFE -

Thrust into the spotlight dur­ing his short life, Knut the po­lar bear’s celebrity has out­lived his dra­matic drown­ing in 2011 — as has the med­i­cal mys­tery sur­round­ing his demise.

On Thurs­day, an­i­mal and dis­ease ex­perts said they fi­nally have the an­swer; the seizure that caused Knut to drown in the pool in his zoo pen, be­fore hun­dreds of shocked visi­tors, was trig­gered by a type of au­toim­mune dis­ease which causes brain in­flam­ma­tion.

“Ev­ery­one re­mem­bers how he was born, how he was pre­sented to the public, how he lived and then the move­ment of death, and now ... there is some clo­sure. We can ac­tu­ally say this is why he died,” said study co-au­thor Alex Greenwood of the Leib­niz In­sti­tute for Zoo and Wildlife Re­search in Ber­lin.

Re­ported in the jour­nal Sci­en­tific Re­ports, this is the first-ever di­ag­no­sis in an an­i­mal of NMDAR en­cephali­tis, a con­di­tion that af­fects about one in 200,000 peo­ple each year.

Af­ter his birth in De­cem­ber 2006, Knut soon shot to fame with TV crews and ador­ing crowds flock­ing to wit­ness his cud­dly cute­ness.

A se­ries of tragedies fur­ther cap­tured the public imag­i­na­tion: Knut’s was aban­doned by his mother, his twin died a few days af­ter birth, and the zookeeper who raised him by hand, died in 2008.

Knut was re­port­edly bul­lied by other bears and thought to suf­fer from a be­hav­ioral dis­or­der that caused him to seek out hu­man at­ten­tion, throw­ing tantrums when he was de­nied an au­di­ence.

The bear earned the zoo mil­lions of eu­ros, draw­ing over two mil­lion zoo visi­tors, graced the cover of Van­ity Fair mag­a­zine and even ap­peared on Ger­man postage stamps.

Knut was just when he died.

Mourn­ers flocked to his cage, leav­ing flow­ers, can­dles and cards, and a bronze statue dubbed “Knut the Dreamer” was erected in his mem­ory.

The cause of death was sus­pected to have been a brain seizure, likely from en­cephali­tis, but the ex­act trig­ger has re­mained a mys­tery.

The brain in­flam­ma­tion can be caused by vi­ral or bac­te­rial in­fec­tions, or a faulty im­mune sys­tem re­ac­tion which causes an­ti­bod­ies, meant to at­tack in­truder mi­crobes, turn on the body in­stead.

The most com­mon non-in­fec­tious form of the dis­ease is NMDAR en­cephali­tis.

Af­ter years of head-scratch­ing, in­ves­ti­ga­tors had a break­through in­spi­ra­tion to test for NMDAR an­ti­bod­ies, and found “high con­cen­tra­tions” in Knut’s cere­brospinal fluid,

four years

old they said.

In hu­mans, the treat­able dis­ease only dis­cov­ered in 2007, af­fects mainly young women.

Symp­toms gen­er­ally start with headaches and a high tem­per­a­ture, fol­lowed by psy­chotic episodes like hal­lu­ci­na­tions and ag­gres­sion, and fi­nally epilep­tic seizures.

It is of­ten di­ag­nosed in the late stages but pa­tients re­act well to treat­ment — a com­bi­na­tion of steroids, blood trans­fu­sions and ther­apy to de­stroy the er­rant an­ti­bod­ies.

Knut’s di­ag­no­sis should open a new field of re­search into an­i­mal en­cephali­tis, said the team.

“Be­cause treat­ment op­tions are avail­able in hu­mans that could easily be trans­ferred to an­i­mals, the death of many an­i­mals, par­tic­u­larly of con­ser­va­tion con­cern, from en­cephali­tis in the fu­ture may be pre­ventable,” Greenwood said in a tele­phone con­fer­ence.

AFP

This file pic­ture taken on Dec. 10, 2010 shows the world’s most fa­mous po­lar bear Knut sit­ting in his en­clo­sure at the zoo in Ber­lin. Thrust into the spotlight dur­ing his short life, Knut the po­lar bear’s celebrity has out­lived his dra­matic drown­ing in 2011 — as did the med­i­cal mys­tery be­hind his demise. On Thurs­day, Aug. 27, an­i­mal and dis­ease ex­perts said they have fi­nally cracked it: the seizure that caused Knut to drown in the pool in his zoo pen, be­fore hun­dreds of shocked visi­tors, was trig­gered by a type of au­toim­mune dis­ease which causes brain in­flam­ma­tion. Re­ported in the jour­nal Sci­en­tific Re­ports, this is the first-ever di­ag­no­sis in an an­i­mal of NMDAR en­cephali­tis, a con­di­tion that af­fects about one in 200,000 peo­ple per year.

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