Gene Therapy: A Single Treatment Cures Diabetes - How to Protect Your Pet Now

Dog with Diabetes

Story at-a-glance

  • Researchers in Spain have successfully used gene therapy to treat type I diabetes in dogs.
  • Type I diabetes, known as juvenile diabetes in humans, is the form of diabetes that most often affects canines. It occurs primarily in adult dogs as the result of lifestyle factors, including over-vaccination, diets high in carbohydrates, and lack of exercise.
  • The gene therapy treatment is given in a single session, and the dogs in the study recovered their health and showed no further signs of the disease – some through over four years of monitoring.
  • The dogs experienced good glucose control whether fasting or eating, with no episodes of hypoglycemia, even after exercise. The dogs also had improved body weight and developed no secondary complications four years after treatment.
  • Dog diabetes is almost always avoidable, so while the news of a cure is exciting, preventing disease in your pet should remain the focus of your efforts.

By Dr. Becker

I learned some really interesting news recently. It appears scientists have successfully cured diabetes in dogs!

As reported in the February issue of the journal Diabetes1, researchers from the Center of Animal Biotechnology and Gene Therapy, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain, used a single gene therapy session to treat dogs with type I diabetes. The dogs in the study regained their health and showed no further symptoms of disease. Some of the dogs were monitored for over four years with no recurrence of the condition.

Differences Between Type I and Type II Diabetes

Type I diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes in humans, is caused by a shortage of insulin in the body. Type II diabetes is caused by the body’s inefficient use of insulin due to a condition known as insulin resistance.

Insulin is an anabolic hormone that moves not only sugar, but also amino acids, electrolytes and fatty acids into the cells of the body. A lack of insulin or inefficient use of insulin will cause these substances to remain outside the cells, starving them of the vital nutrients they require.

Generally speaking, in humans, type I diabetes (a problem with insulin production) is acquired in childhood, while type II (a problem with the body’s use of insulin) develops at middle age or older as a result of lifestyle factors. Many people believe the distinction between the two types has to do with the age at which they occur, but that’s not really accurate. The difference is whether there is a shortage of insulin produced, or inefficient use of insulin produced.

When it comes to dogs and cats, the equivalent of human juvenile diabetes is rare – meaning dogs and cats don’t develop a problem with insulin production as youngsters. Diabetes almost always occurs in middle aged or older animals, after they have encountered enough lifestyle obstacles to induce either decreased production of insulin or a diminished ability to use it efficiently.

Diabetes in cats typically occurs from inefficient use of insulin, but in dogs, it usually occurs from a problem with insulin production. That’s why even though dogs develop the disease later in life like cats and humans with type II diabetes, the disease almost always takes the form of type I diabetes in canines.

So when you see “type I diabetes” as it relates to a dog, keep in mind it is an adult onset disease and not a condition the animal developed early in life.

How Gene Therapy Works to Resolve Type I Diabetes

The gene therapy given to the dogs in the Barcelona study is minimally invasive and consists of a series of injections in the rear legs. The injections contain gene therapy vectors that express both the insulin and glucokinase genes. Glucokinase is an enzyme that controls the uptake of glucose from the blood. Acting together, the genes function as a sensor that automatically regulates the uptake process, decreasing excesses of blood sugar called diabetic hyperglycemia.

The researchers believe their study demonstrates the safety and effectiveness of gene therapy using a new generation of vectors known as adeno-associated vectors derived from non-pathogenic viruses. The treatment involves transferring two genes to a muscle in the rear leg.

Promising Long-Term Results

The dogs in the study, once treated, experienced good glucose control across the board, whether fasting or eating. This is a better result than daily insulin injections provide, and there were also no episodes of hypoglycemia, even after the dogs were exercised.

In addition, the study dogs had improved body weight and developed no secondary complications four years after treatment.

According to Medical News Today:

"The study is the first to report optimal long-term control of diabetes in large animals. This had never before been achieved with any other innovative therapies for diabetes. The study is also the first to report that a single administration of genes to diabetic dogs is able to maintain normoglycemia over the long term (more than 4 years). As well as achieving normoglycemia, the dogs had normal levels of glycosylated proteins and developed no secondary complications of diabetes after more than 4 years with the disease."

The researchers believe the excellent results achieved with diabetic dogs can eventually translate to use of gene therapy treatment of diabetes in veterinary medicine, and ultimately, human medicine.

Prevention is Also a 'Cure'

While the news of a diabetes cure for dogs is certainly encouraging and exciting, there are many hurdles it must overcome before it becomes available from your local veterinarian.

In the meantime, it’s important to remember that diabetes in dogs and cats is almost always avoidable, so I certainly recommend prevention rather than waiting for a cure for the disease.

You can learn about the three primary lifestyle-related causes of pet diabetes in my video and article titled Three Lifestyle Hazards That Can Plague Your Pet with Diabetes. And there are three very important steps you can start taking today to prevent diabetes in your dog or cat:

  • Feed a balanced, carb-free, species-appropriate diet. Control your pet’s caloric intake to maintain an optimal weight. Carbs break down into sugar, and a lifetime of sugar will tax your pet’s pancreas and ability to produce and be sensitive to insulin.
  • Avoid unnecessary vaccinations that can over-stimulate your pet’s immune system and create immune-mediated diseases.
  • Make sure your pet gets adequate daily exercise.


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