Despite the increased awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, few people know that a similar disease affects our canine companions.
Degenerative myelopathy is a disease similar to ALS that causes progressive paralysis in older dogs. Both neurodegenerative diseases are fatal and there is no cure.
As in humans with ALS, dogs with degenerative myelopathy eventually die when the respiratory system stops working, but often pets are euthanized before.
But researchers at the University of Massachusetts partnered with the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Grafton, Massachusetts, to test a new drug therapy in dogs that they hope could one day benefit human patients with ALS.
Dogs participating in the trial, which began in December 2016, undergo tests and are checked every three months to assess their neurological and motor functions. According to Tufts, four dogs are currently in the pilot study. So far, the therapy appears safe in pets, but researchers say it's too early to determine whether it will stop the disease or reverse it.
"Does it work? That’s the question I wake up and go to bed with every day," said Robert H. Brown Jr., a UMass Medical School neurologist and one of the world’s foremost experts on ALS.
The failure rate with clinical trials for any drug is very high.
"Approximately only 10 percent of drugs that make their way into people is actually approved by the FDA for use in humans," said Dr. Cheryl London with Cummings School.
One reason is that tests are done on mice, which are given the disease or genetically engineered. London says because of these factors, the disease in mice don't accurately represent what researchers see in humans. But diseases in dog, cats and even horses do. Researchers also say because these animals are much closer in makeup to humans than mice, the likelihood of success is greater.
Greta, a 9-year-old boxer, is one of the dogs participating in the clinical trial of the drug therapy and her owner hopes it could stop her disease from getting worse.
"Her contributing to the research was really important," Greta's owner said. "That it links to human ALS and research in that area, it just seemed like Greta could help dogs and humans, both."
If your dog has generative myelopathy and you would like your dog to take part in this study, click here to see if it meets the criteria.