The Universität Autònoma de Barcelona (or UAB) announced last week that they have successfully used gene therapy to cure type 1 diabetes in a dog for the first time. The dogs who were treated as part of the study had been suffering with type 1 diabetes treated with traditional insulin therapy for over four years. The study was led by Dr. Fàtima Bosch, a Spanish professor of molecular biology and biochemistry with a PhD in pharmacology, who had been studying type 1 diabetes in dogs for many years and had previously successfully used gene therapy to cure type 1 diabetes in a control group of mice.
Diabetes mellitus in dogs is covered in more detail in one of our other articles. Diabetes is broadly divided in to two types; type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes means that the body does not produce enough insulin from the pancreas to adequately process sugar in the diet, whereas type 2 diabetes means that while the body produces enough insulin, it is unable to utilise it properly. Type 1 diabetes is almost always controlled by regular daily supplemental injection of insulin, while type 2 diabetes may be insulin controlled or managed by diet alone.
DNA and the genes are considered to be the building blocks of life, and our genes contain all of the information that determines things as diverse as our hair and eye colour, height, and predisposition to various inherited genetic health conditions. Gene therapy involves artificially manipulating DNA in order to alter the genetic make up of specific cells of the body. As the existence of DNA and our understanding of genes and how they form the building blocks of life is a relatively recent discovery in scientific terms, gene therapy itself is a fairly recent concept in modern medicine.
The study performed by Dr. Fàtima Bosch and her team used gene expression to effect a long term permanent cure for diabetes in the study group of dogs. Gene expression uses information contained in healthy genes, such as genes from dogs that are not affected by diabetes, to synthesise the appropriate replacement healthy genes for dogs that do suffer from the condition. In this study, the genes responsible for producing insulin and also for regulating blood glucose were expressed, providing the dogs in question with replacement functional genes to manage insulin production and regulate blood sugar in the place of the faulty genes that were not keeping up with the job!
Once the appropriate genes for treatment were identified and expressed, administration of the treatment itself was relatively straightforward. In one single treatment, researchers injected the appropriate gene vectors into the back legs of the study group of dogs, which then ‘expressed’ or generated, the production of insulin and natural regulation of glucose in the dogs- permanently.This means that the dogs in question no longer need regular administration of insulin or careful supervision of their blood-sugar levels and other daily treatments to manage the condition, as their bodies are now able to regulate their insulin production and uptake naturally.
All of this is understandably exciting news for the dog loving community, particularly if you yourself own a dog that suffers with type 1 diabetes. However, it is important not to get your hopes up too soon, or to expect to see gene expression therapy readily available in your local veterinary surgery in the near future. While the overwhelming success of Dr. Fàtima Bosch’s study is a significant leap forwards along the path for a cure for type 1 diabetes in dogs, many further studies will need to be undertaken, monitored and considered before using gene expression therapy to cure diabetes across the entire canine population will become commonplace or publicly available.However, over the course of the next decade, we can expect to see a significant amount of additional study of the condition and its treatment with gene therapy, and it is certainly fair to say that the face of diabetes treatment and management in dogs is on the brink of a significant leap forwards.
As with all advances in veterinary or human medicine, there is a significant amount of cross over between researchers and scientists in both fields, for the common good of both the human and animal populations. The successful conclusion of this study will have as great an impact, if not greater, on the field of human diabetes treatment and management than it potentially will have for dogs! Again, this is not something that is going to happen overnight, however; the amount of time it takes for further research into gene expression therapy to cure diabetes in animals is nothing compared to how much more research, testing and verification is required before any new treatment or condition can be offered to the general population.That being said, there is no doubt that the successful curing of diabetes in dogs as part of a study group is a huge step towards curing diabetes in people; just one more reason why dogs really are, “man’s best friend.”