From Humans to Turtles, Carolyn Cray, Ph.D., Helps Animals Regain Health

There was little question that oil-covered sea turtles plucked from the gulf after the Deepwater Horizon explosion were gravely ill. Many had ingested the dark slime and endured extreme temperatures in slick surface waters super-heated by the sun.

Neither was there much doubt where the Audubon Nature Institute in Louisiana and other wildlife experts would turn for help in evaluating the health status of the reptiles for the purpose of devising their treatment. They sent more than 900 samples of turtle blood to the Miller School’s renowned Avian and Wildlife Laboratory headed by Carolyn Cray, Ph.D., professor of clinical pathology, and microbiology and immunology.

“The morphological changes in their cells were dramatic,” Cray says of the tiny vials of blood that FedEx began delivering a month after the April 20, 2010, explosion and that occasionally still arrive for follow-up testing. “There were just amazing changes. We had never seen anything like this before.’’

Coming from a pioneer in the field of wildlife and exotic animal pathology, that says a lot. Over her 20 years in the Division of Comparative Pathology, Cray has developed a number of previously unavailable tests to diagnose animal diseases veterinarians could only guess about. But she’s also an excellent administrator and, with her keen ability to tweak processes for maximum efficiency – and her modesty – she was the ideal person to lead the high-pressure and time-consuming task of analyzing the crucial turtle samples so small in volume they left no room for error.

“It pushed us on all levels, but I think everyone was feeling as much as I was that we were doing something special and needed to get the results right away,’’ she said of the lab’s four technicians and office manager. “By the summer and fall, we were seeing improved blood parameters in repeat samples from the same turtle and took great delight in the success of the Audubon group.’’

Under the mentorship of Norman Altman, V.M.D., founder, professor, and director of the division, and Greg Bossart, V.M.D., Ph.D., the former veterinarian at the Miami Seaquarium, Cray has almost single-handedly forged the division’s national reputation as a specialized laboratory for reptiles and birds, which unlike humans and other mammals have nucleated red blood cells.

“Dr. Cray is responsible for that. She’s not only an excellent researcher who has published and presented her work nationally and internationally, she’s an excellent manager and administrator,’’ Altman said, noting she brought his dream of establishing the Department of Pathology’s new Pathology Research Resources Histology Laboratory to fruition.

Originally a country girl from the Rochester, New York, area, Cray owes her specialty, in part, to Cici, the cockatiel she adopted after she graduated from Rollins College near Orlando and began graduate studies at UM in 1986. Like a lot of bird owners, she was frustrated by how often her vet told her there were no diagnostic tests to determine what was ailing her pet.

One reason: Automated machines that quickly count the red blood cells of mammals do not identify nucleated blood cells correctly, so they must be counted by hand. Additionally, birds and exotic pets have very little blood, yielding tiny samples not easily analyzed on equipment engineered for larger animals and humans. As such, few researchers and even fewer labs undertook the time-consuming chore.

But unlike most bird owners, Cray had the right skills and interest and landed in the perfect place with the ideal mentor to fill the niche: the division Altman founded in 1981 to support investigators who study animal models of human diseases to determine the causes, progression and treatments.

That’s still the division’s primary role, and on any given day the lab is running blood counts for UM investigators like Joshua Hare, M.D., director of the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute who is on his way to developing stem-cell based treatments for humans with heart failure.

But after joining the division in 1990, Cray began collaborating with Bossart, a faculty member who introduced her to the wildlife and bird field, where he was well-entrenched. At the time, avian medicine was more guesswork than science, and Bossart pushed to create a science-based pathology lab for birds and wildlife species. Still an adjunct professor today, Bossart later left, and Cray ran with his idea, offering quick, personalized and expert service that many of the nation’s zoos, aquariums, wildlife rehabilitation programs – and even an occasional movie star with an ailing pet chicken – have grown to depend on. Grateful bird owners even make donations or bequeath money to the lab’s Avian Research Fund.

Today, the lab evaluates more than 15,000 bird and other wildlife samples – everything from porcupines to peregrine falcons – a year, producing a healthy revenue stream that provides additional resources to support the research of UM investigators who are intent on conquering heart failure, diabetes, cancer, and other human diseases.

“Our program in veterinary and comparative pathology is a real jewel,’’ said Richard Cote, M.D., professor and chair of pathology. “It is so unusual to have a medical school program of such depth, and Carolyn and her colleagues have done a fantastic job in building it and making it useful to not only the UM community, but extending it to a much broader audience.”

So when wildlife specialists began rehabilitating oil-slicked animals rescued from the spill, it was no surprise they turned to the Miller School for diagnostic support that, so far, has allowed 156 turtles, most of them endangered Kemp’s ridleys, at the Audubon Nature Institute alone, to return to the sea.

“I have a lifelong appreciation for animals, but when I started down the road as an idealistic graduate student to unravel the mysteries of human diseases I never imagined this is where I’d be,’’ Cray said. “I guess it’s destiny.”

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