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Defeating Diabetes? Gene Therapy Cures Type I Diabetes in Dogs

Reviewed by Dr. Peter Kintzer, DVM, DACVIM on Monday, August 3, 2015
Posted March 12, 2013 in A Vet's Life

Dr. Ernie Ward discusses some ground breaking diabetes research and its implications for diabetic dogs throughout the world. For more from Dr. Ward, find him at www.drernieward.com and like him on Facebook!

One day, we may look back at insulin injections to treat diabetes as primitive as drilling holes in heads to cure headaches. Exciting research recently published proved that gene transfer therapy successfully cured type 1 diabetes in dogs. If this technology works as well in humans, we may be approaching a time when we’ll be able to throw away insulin syringes for good. The great news for dog owners is that this research will ultimately help our canine companions. For humans, these findings accelerate the possibility of a profound change in the way type 1 diabetes willbe treated in the future.

The groundbreaking research was conducted at Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). In simplest terms, the scientists injected the diabetic dogs with gene therapy vectors in a single intramuscular injection. Fast forward four years and the dogs have remained cured without problems. One injection and done. Previous experiments in diabetic mice had proven this therapy could work, but tests in bigger animals had not been conducted. Dogs tend to develop type 1 diabetes so they were a logical larger species to target. In contrast, the more common type 2 diabetes affects cats and human adults. The successful gene transfer resulted in the expression of the insulin and glucokinase genes in affected dogs. The combination of these two genes allowed the diabetic dogs to properly monitor blood sugar levels and prevent excessive blood sugar levels from occurring. That seemed to be the special sauce for success. Either gene alone failed to cure diabetes. Even better, the treated dogs never experienced episodes of life-threatening blood sugar, a common side effect of traditional insulin injections. Eating, fasting, and exercise didn’t alter treated dogs ability to regulate their blood sugar. So far none of the dogs have developed any of the common complications associated with type 1 diabetes. They appear normal in every way. For a practicing veterinarian, this is nothing short of miraculous.1 

The astonishing news for me as an animal doctor is that a cure to this dreaded disease in my canine patients may happen during my career. For parents of children with type 1 diabetes, this may lead to the elimination of insulin needles and pumps,

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Ernie has more than 20 years of experience in the veterinary industry and is a well-known veterinarian, media personality and author. He is also a founding member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team.

Opinions expressed are those of the writer:

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author's and do not necessarily represent the beliefs, policies or positions of all veterinarians, Pet Health Network, IDEXX Laboratories, Inc. or its affiliates and partner companies.