University professor finds dogs useful in finding diabetic treatments

By Jane Lee

A University professor has found that man’s loyal companions have changed the course of diabetic history.

In late August, an animation, that laid out the history of diabetic dogs and the use of insulin for treatment, was posted on TED-Ed. 

Duncan Ferguson, department head and professor of Comparative Biosciences, co-created the presentation, which links the history between dogs and humans with diabetes.

Ferguson said that during a discussion with Director of TED-Ed Logan Smalley, the two wanted to propose a topic that related to comparative physiology. This led them to propose the idea of diabetic dogs, connecting them back to human diabetes.

“It was stated in the video, before that time without having replacement therapy of the insulin, it was a death sentence,” Ferguson said. “It really was difficult and it was not easy to survive that because people would basically lose weight, and they would become dehydrated because of secondary infections because of high blood sugars, et cetera.” 

According to the American Diabetes Association, hormone insulin is created by beta cells that are found in the pancreas. When eating, insulin is released from beta cells to  encourage usage or storage of glucose from foods. 

The discovery of using insulin on canines led to the use of treating human diabetes with insulin. According to Margarethe Hoenig, professor of Veterinary Clinical Medicine, the treatment has been effective.

“We are lucky that the structure of insulin is so similar that we can use that human recombinant insulin and treat animals,” said Hoenig.

She added that most diabetics in the U.S. and other developed countries have insulin available and are being treated.

There are four types of insulin that treat both human and animal diabetics: rapid-acting, regular or short-acting, intermediate-acting and long-acting. In order to decide which insulin to use on a diabetic patient, different criteria are considered based on the patient’s symptoms.

Kelsi Evans, educator at McKinley Health Center, said there are more ways to control diabetes than just insulin.

“It’s the diet, it’s the exercise, it’s the insulin and  the meal plan,” Evans said. “The diabetes is better controlled so that an individual can better manage those things.”

There are two types of diabetes for both animals and humans — type 1 and type 2.

Evans said that type 1 is commonly known as juvenile diabetes and usually occurs during adolescence or early adulthood. Type 2 diabetes, she said, is seen in older adults and is associated with obesity, metabolic diseases and other chronic diseases.

For dogs, Ferguson said that type 1 is more commonly seen, though Hoenig said there has been a dramatic increase of obesity in dogs.

“The increase in obesity is paralleled with the increase in diabetes (in humans),” she said. “This strongly suggests that in the dog, we also see obesity retaliated diabetes.”

In a recently published study, she found that from 2007 to 2012 there was a 37 percent increase in obesity reported by Banfield Pet Hospitals. During the same time period, the hospital also saw a 32 percent increase of diabetes with dogs.

Hoenig said that many dogs have the same pathologic process that can be found in young people with type 1 diabetes. This causes their pancreas to have autoimmune destruction, which is the destruction of their own insulin-producing cells.

“Vet med is a little behind and we need to benefit from the human advances because there will be no pharmaceutical companies that see that its a good market for them to develop a drug… just for a diabetic cat market,” Hoenig said. “Drugs need to be developed for the human market, which is huge, and we benefit from those advances.”

Jane can be reached at [email protected].