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Lucky Dogs Get Shot at Diabetes Cure

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Lead researcher Fatima Bosch, director of the Center of Animal Biotechnology and Gene Therapy at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain, said the next step in their research is to test the gene therapy on dogs with naturally occurring diabetes. The dogs will also be pets, so their living conditions and glucose levels will be varied, more closely mimicking what a person with type 1 diabetes would encounter.

Dr. Camillo Ricordi, director of the Diabetes Research Institute and the cell transplant center at the University of Miami, called the new research "an important study, and a remarkable initial finding. But, this is not a type 1 model of diabetes. This is a model where you induce diabetes chemically and you may have residual [beta] cell function."

Ricordi explained that because it's not naturally occurring type 1 diabetes, there's no worry of the immune system destroying the insulin-releasing cells in the muscle. But, in a person with type 1 diabetes, the immune system could still attack and destroy these new cells.

Dr. Massimo Trucco, chief of the division of immunogenics at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, said the issue of autoimmunity is an important one. But, of greater concern to him is that while this therapy worked in very controlled conditions -- the dogs' diets and exercise sessions were controlled -- in real-life conditions, this therapy might not work as well.

"Dogs get the food you want them to have. They probably spent most of their time in a cage. But, kids eat what they want and play when they want, meaning their [blood sugar level] varies dramatically. If you inject this therapy into the muscles, the muscle cells don't have the same apparatus to control the insulin levels that beta cells do. This would release insulin too slow to give good control, and could cause [low blood sugar levels] when it does release," he said.

Trucco said he doesn't believe this therapy could translate to humans.

"Human beings are not clones of dogs. Beta cells are more complicated than muscle cells. Muscles just can't secrete insulin quickly and efficiently like beta cells do," he said.

But, he added that this was a very well-done gene therapy study that showed that the particular form of gene therapy used in this research appears to be safe for long-term use.

More information

Learn more about gene therapy from the Human Genome Project.

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