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January 28, 2020 – Could a therapy used to treat drug overdoses in humans help turtles recover from toxic red tide exposure? That’s what Foundation-funded researchers at Florida’s Loggerhead Marinelife Center (LMC) are testing right now and the results are encouraging.

Red tides are harmful blooms of algae that discolor coastal waters and occur almost annually in the Gulf of Mexico. They produce potent neurotoxins, called brevetoxins, that affect the nervous system in marine animals. This leads to mass strandings, and even deaths, among many species, including sea turtles.

Brevetoxins bind to a turtle’s fatty tissue, so the LMC team is testing the use of intravenous lipid emulsion (ILE) as therapy. The treatment involves injecting affected turtles with ILE, which binds tightly to brevetoxins to keep them out of fatty tissue. Once bound, the toxins are eliminated through the turtle’s waste.

Loggerhead Marinelife Center worked with three Florida-based animal rehabilitation centers to gauge ILE’s effectiveness on nearly 30 sea turtles and witnessed symptoms disappear within 24 hours. By comparison, using current methods to treat red tide exposure, such as fluid therapy, can take up to three months for turtles to recover, decreasing their chances of successful release into the wild.

“Red tides are becoming more frequent, and we’re going to see more strandings of threatened turtles,” said Dr. Justin Perrault, Director of Research at Loggerhead Marinelife Center. “This treatment could help us get them back into their environment, faster, which is important for their populations.”

The therapy was first pioneered in human medicine for drug overdose cases and has proved successful in clearing the body of lipid-soluble drugs, such as cocaine, as well as numerous other medications.

The Foundation is funding the analysis of individual blood samples to quantify how well the treatment decreases brevetoxin levels in the turtles which will help fine-tune the therapy in the future.