FORT DETRICK, Md. – A U.S. Army medical team contributed to an investigation into the cause of death of a Red Panda at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI).

The findings will ultimately help to protect the endangered species.

Maj. Mathanraj Packiam, PhD, from the 1st Area Medical Laboratory and U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), worked with Maj. Jeffrey R. Kugelman and Raina Kumar from the Center for Genomics; Dr. Janice Williams, Lt. Col. Curtis R. Cline and Col. Paul R. Facemire from the USAMRIID Department of Pathology; and Dr. Neel Aziz, a veterinary pathologist at NZCBI on the investigation.

“Red Pandas are endangered and legally protected in India, Bhutan, China, Nepal and Myanmar,” said Dr. Aziz. “Their primary threats are habitat loss and degradation, human interference and poaching. Learning the specific genus and species of pathogens that affect Red Pandas will help conservation medicine at the wildlife domestic animal interface and wildlife human interface.”

The USAMRIID’s pathology team conducted transmission electron microscopy studies on Formalin-Fixed, Paraffin-Embedded (FFPE) tissue from the Red Panda’s brain in an effort to identify and speciate the protozoa in the brain tissue.

The USAMRIID’s genomics team extracted the DNA from FFPE brain sections and performed sequencing and identified the protozoa to the species level, said Packiam, who earned his doctoral degree in Microbiology and Immunology from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia.

Packiam said the mission was special because of the agent and sample type.

“Pathogen discovery or detection of an unknown pathogenic agent in a sample is my passion,” said Packiam. “The primary suspected agent at the beginning of the investigation was Toxoplasma gondii, for which cats serve as the most likely source of infection in a zoo setting.