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A gorilla at Paignton Zoo is helping with research into human heart disease.

Experts scanned western lowland gorilla Kumbuka’s heart as part of a global project to find out more about this issue in great apes.

Ghislaine Sayers, Head of Veterinary Services at Paignton Zoo, said: “We had to do a routine health check on Kumbuka, so we arranged to do the ultra-sound at the same time.”

The Great Ape Heart Project is an international initiative to collect data on ape hearts. “There are two main aims," says Ghislaine: "To work out what is normal for an ape heart and to help us detect any cardiac problems in our apes early on."

The hearts of humans and great apes are very much alike – however, subtle differences between them could help doctors understand how the human heart may have evolved.

The heart health statistics for zoo apes are similar to those of humans. A third of gorillas that died in US zoos were found to have some form of heart disease. The British Heart Foundation estimates that the same conditions claim the lives of about one in three men and women in the UK

One thought is that life in a zoo can be just too easy for apes, with lots of good food and not enough incentive to take exercise. In that respect it mimics the sedentary, easy-going modern lifestyle that is linked to cardiac problems in humans.

Ghislaine: "We know that apes in zoos can suffer from heart problems. It could just be a genetic problem - something these animals are predisposed to - or it could be down to the fact that as they generally live longer in zoos than in the wild, there is a greater chance of heart disease becoming an issue."

Lowland gorilla Kumbuka is 15 years old, around 7 feet from head to toe and weighs in at an impressive 180 kilos or 28 stone. Now that he has matured into a silverback he is at the stage of his life when he is equivalent to a young adult man.

The Paignton Zoo vet team was joined by Robert Shave and Eric Stöhr from the Cardiovascular Research Laboratory at Cardiff Metropolitan University. They took echocardiographic images, also known as cardiac ultrasounds, of Kumbuka’s heart. In addition, they took blood samples to help establish a normal value for gorillas of substances in the blood that can indicate heart problems. They also carried out karyotyping – a genetic test to examine chromosomes in a sample of cells.

Some of the results will take weeks to come through, and in the meantime Kumbuka has made a full recovery from the anaesthetic, oblivious to the important contribution he is making to medical research.

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