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Closing in on new tools to address Addison’s disease in dogs

  • Standard poodle running on the beach

    Closing in on new tools to address Addison’s disease in dogs

    CVM veterinary researchers are taking important steps to develop new therapies for dogs

    Photo courtesy of Skyler Ewing.

Often undiscovered until its devastating consequences threaten life itself, Addison’s disease is newly diagnosed in thousands of humans and dogs each year. Two, young doctoral researchers at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine are working on key steps toward new therapies that will improve and extend life for both dogs and humans afflicted with the disease.

Autoimmune Addison’s disease (AAD) is a disorder that can affect any dog, but Standard Poodles and Portuguese Water Dogs are commonly affected. The disease occurs when the body’s immune system–in the form of specialized T cells–attacks the outer layers of the adrenal glands responsible for producing critical hormones dogs and humans need to regulate stress and key electrolytes in the body. The standard treatment for dogs and humans is a lifetime prescription for hormone replacement drugs, which can cause damaging side effects throughout the body over time.

Haeree Park Lang has completed her third year of a DVM/PhD dual degree program, and is focused on discovering why and how the T cells “see” the adrenal gland tissues as foreign invaders worthy of destruction. Lang explains, “There are millions of unique T cells in our bodies that become activated to destroy a specific foreign invader; however only a tiny number of those unique T cells will recognize the adrenal gland as foreign in a dog with Autoimmune Addison’s Disease.”

Using novel techniques never attempted in dogs to find these rare activated T cells, Lang is comparing donated samples from the blood of healthy dogs to those with AAD. “Our goal is to isolate the rare T cells that are targeting the adrenal gland hormone-producing cells,” Lang says. Once found, the specialized killers can be studied to find methods of preventing their destructive behavior.

The development of AAD in dogs closely mirrors the disorder’s progression in humans. This parallel creates opportunities for veterinary and human medicine researchers to collaborate and more quickly discover improved and personalized therapies.

“Treatments for AAD haven’t changed much in over 60 years,” Lang says. “It’s long overdue that we improve treatment options for this devastating disease.”

When the T-cells attack, autoantibodies are produced and circulate in the blood–constantly targeting hormone-producing cells that need to be destroyed. If these autoantibodies can be reliably isolated, they can be used as a biomarker that may identify dogs with greater susceptibility to AAD before clinical signs appear.

PhD student Amy Treeful is building upon research in human medicine to lay the groundwork for an early screening test that finds the biomarker specific to AAD in dogs. She is currently making adrenal proteins in the lab and testing each one to evaluate whether they react with blood from dogs with AAD.

“Our goal is to test a large number of dogs over time to see if those that have the biomarker eventually develop AAD,” Treeful explains. “Another goal is to learn how early the biomarker can first be detected before the disease develops.”

Lang’s and Treeful’s work is guided by Dr. Steven Friedenberg, who is attempting to unlock the complex genetic and environmental conditions that lead to AAD. Their work is supported with funding from the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

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