Diabetes Research—Should It be a Dog’s Life?

| Nov 1, 1996

Researchers working in the Immunology Laboratory for Kidney Transplants at the University of California Davis have kept a diabetic dog off of insulin for three years. The researchers removed the beagle's pancreas to give it diabetes, then injected it with healthy islet cells ten days later. The dog has been designated with a number rather than a name to prevent the lab technicians from becoming emotionally attached.

Islet cells are the cells in the pancreas which produce insulin. Scientists have been working for the last 15 years to create a membrane which will protect transplanted islet cells from the body's immune system while allowing the islets to export insulin to the body. Monkeys, pigs, and dogs have the only immune systems similar to those of humans-in some ways even stronger than humans. Dogs are easier to work on than pigs when it comes to islet cell research, because dog islet cells have membranes, while pig cells do not. The technicians sometimes refer to their dog as the Million Dollar Dog for the amount of time and research dollars the lab has spent to keep it healthy.

One scientist, who wishes to not have his name used, says the dog gives hope to everyone involved in the diabetes research field. Research with the dog shows that, under the right conditions, an islet transplant can work without immunosuppressive drugs and the dog does not require them. The scientist hopes to be experimenting on pigs, then humans within the next two years.

"We've been able to isolate the problems," he says, "and we know they're solvable. All I want right now is to be left alone so we can get down and do the work."

But not everybody supports the work being done at Davis. One of the dog's team's greatest impediments are people calling to criticize their work.

And things might get worse.

On May 6, 1996, U.S. Representative Jon Fox of Pennsylvania, backed by the animal rights group Last Chance for Animals, introduced two new bills to congress which would limit the use of some animals for research-including dogs. The bills were called the "Family Pet Protection Act" and the "Pet Safety and Protection Act." Fox says the bills addressed the "growing problem of pet theft." In his press statement, Fox says stolen pets are "literally torn apart as 'bait' in dog-fighting contests, others are mutilated by satanic cults." Directed towards research, the bill added, "Still others are sold into a lifetime of slavery in 'puppy mills'..."

Jane Adams, Director of Government Relations at the National Association for Biomedical Research, says Fox may not be as concerned with saving the family pet as he seems. More likely he is interested in shutting down animal research, she says.

The bills ignore the typical reasons pets get lost, says Adams, and accept the notion that research facilities are somehow responsible for missing animals.

According to NABR Alert, a newsletter published by the National Association of Biomedical Research, neither federal nor state authorites have been able to confirm that pet theft is a significant problem. The Jefferson County, Missouri sheriff's office initiated an investigation after there had been repeated rumors of "dog-napping" in the state. The county chief of detectives recently concluded that "evidence of an organized pet theft ring did not materialize. Over 75 percent of reported missing pets turn out to be strays that wander off the property."

But measures such as the Fox bills could have a large impact on dog research.

Laboratories get their dogs from three different sources-half from Class A dealers who raise the animals specifically for research, 25 percent from pounds and shelters, and 25 percent from Class B dealers who get their dogs from trade and contributions.

Under the assumption that Class B dealers are responsible for the pet theft epidemic, the bills would ban research facilities from getting their animals from dealers who do not breed or raise the animals themselves. This could put all current Class B dealers who sell to research facilities out of business. The bill would also restrict the use of animals from the pound.

According to the most recent American Humane Association survey, five to ten million dogs and cats are euthanized in pounds every year. In 1994, 101,090 dogs were used in research, less than one percent of the abandoned animals put to death. The price for a research dog has risen in the last 20 years from approximately $50 to around $700. The bills may push the cost of research animals such as the Million Dollar Dog to a point where such research is not financially feasible for the university.

The War on Animal Research

Animal research has been a highly charged and visible issue for decades. The animal rights movement has been effective in reaching legislators like Fox and the public through emotional pleas.

One of the reasons the dog researcher requested not to have his name used in this story relates to a 1993 incident when an animal research laboratory on the UC Davis campus was burned to the ground, causing an estimated $12 million in damages. Though the Davis fire department confirmed that the building was a victim of arson, no suspects were found. Researchers at UC Davis suspect that an animal activist group started the blaze.

Dale Brooks, who is in charge of animal services at UC Davis, calls the '93 fire one of the most publicized and destructive actions done in protest of animal research. Animal activism has a long history of dramatic, less damaging ways of attracting the public's attention. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have hung banners from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Eiffel Tower. In 1990, the group bombarded the New York headquarters of the cosmetic company, L'Oreal, with black valentines, and in the same year performed a public beheading of a rabbit in Paris.

Such visible actions are slowly achieving their goal. In the past 20 years, 12 states have passed laws prohibiting the release of unclaimed pound animals for research. In other states, lobbyists have been successful in implementing restrictive policies at the local level.

Immunosuppressive Drugs

Mary Beth Sweetland wants a cure for diabetes as much as anyone else. She has lived with type I diabetes for 20 years. She also works for PETA and believes that a cure for the disease can and should be found through human studies.

"Nobody has the right to make animals sick," Sweetland says. "Hundreds of millions of animals have been killed for diabetes research, but we're still injecting ourselves after 75 years of insulin."

Along with her opposition to animal research, Sweetland is especially against islet research because of its use of immunosuppressive drugs. "Islet cell research is a long way off," she says. While the Million Dollar Dog at UC Davis does not require immunosuppressive drugs, most islet transplant dogs do. These drugs make the dogs very sick, explains Sweetland. Given the choice of living on insulin injections or immunosuppressive drugs, she would stay on injections.

An article published in Transplantation Proceedings in December 1995 supports Sweetland's statements. It reads, "Currently, clinical islet transplantation trials in diabetic patients have to be performed using immunosuppressive protocols that are potentially more harmful to the patient than the disease itself."

Regulatory Committees

Richard Bergeman, chairman of physiology and biophysics at the University of Southern California, also does islet cell research on dogs. He acknowledges the issues surrounding use of immunosuppressive drugs, but says the dogs do not receive doses strong enough to effect their health. He says that one of the most important ethical issues in every laboratory is balancing the value of research against the discomfort of the animal.

Bergeman points to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) as proof that research laboratories maintain the health and comfort of their animals. The Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1985, requires every laboratory to have an IACUC to regulate its practices. Every IACUC must consist of at least one veterinarian unaffiliated with the research facility to keep the committee's interests non-partisan.

"We keep the church and state separate," jokes Bergeman. "The IACUC makes sure that we remain cognizant of the animal's sensitivity."

Sweetland has a lesser opinion of the IACUC. She says that IACUCs are token regulatory committees controlled by the university laboratories. "They're just rubber stamp committees," she says. "There couldn't be anything more naive than depending on the IACUC to protect the safety of research animals."

Humane Care

Lab technicians at UC Davis can empathize with animal lovers. "We got into this field because we like working with animals. We're animal people," says a researcher. The laboratory gives the dog a walk and three nutritious meals every day.

But the researcher at UC Davis, who has type I diabetes himself, also feels dog research is invaluable. He points out that the invention of insulin was made possible through dog research and the original 20 people to receive insulin were given dog insulin in 1922.

"Nobody likes doing this," he says. "Unfortunately we can't make a computer diabetic. I have a personal interest in this work."

"We want to get away from dogs as quickly as we can," the researcher adds. "I want to get to doing transplants on Joe and Bob and Suzie and...myself."

Editor's Note: Two days before going to press DIABETES HEALTH received word that two more "pet theft" bills were introduced to Congress just before adjourning for the winter. Like the bills metioned in this article these new initiatives seek to restrict where and how research facilities may obtain their animals. Because the bills were pending at adjournment, they must be reintroduced next year when Congress reconvenes.

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Posted by Anonymous on 12 July 2014

Oh, and since it was 1996 when this is written, clearly, this research was remarkably useful. 

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