How dogs helped find a treatment for diabetes

Dogs played an important role in the discovery of insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. (Pixabay pic)

According to figures from the Ministry of Health Malaysia, more than 3.6 million Malaysians have diabetes. This can largely be attributed to excessive sugar in the average Malaysian diet combined with unhealthy lifestyles.

Diabetes mellitus, better known by its shortened name of diabetes, has long been a worldwide issue and it is likely to remain so for many years to come.

Symptoms of diabetes include frequent urination and increased thirst. If left untreated, it can lead to stroke or heart disease.

Diabetes has been around for millennia, ancient Egyptian physicians took note of it in 1500BC. It was the ancient Greek physician, Apollonius of Memphis, who first coined the term “diabetes”, which means “to pass through”.

In the 5th century, Indian doctors discovered that there were two types of diabetes, which are classified today as Type 1 and Type 2.

Prior to the 20th century, being diagnosed with diabetes was close to being a death sentence, little could be done to help patients.

Scientific experiments on dogs led to the discovery of the role the pancreas plays in diabetes. (Pixabay pic)

But help sometimes comes from surprising places, and a treatment for diabetes was found with the help of the creature that is man’s best friend.

An 1890 German study found that after removing a dog’s pancreas, the creature would develop diabetes symptoms.

Hence, it became clear that the pancreas plays an important role in the disorder.

But what role was it exactly? This remained unknown until 1920, when Canadian doctors took another look at the study.

They found that the pancreas regulates blood sugar and they experimented on diabetic dogs with pancreatic tissue extract and found it an effective treatment.

The same method would be used two years later, first on a 14-year-old diabetic teenager, and then six other patients.

At a time when patients were put on a starvation diet and were generally dead within months of diagnosis, this teenager survived for another 13 years, before dying of pneumonia.

The extract, called insulin, began to be produced in bulk by Eli Lilly, a then UK-based pharmaceutical company, which allowed the widespread treatment of diabetes.

Apart from being used to treat diabetic humans, insulin is also available for dogs with diabetes. (Pixabay pic)

The doctors responsible for this discovery would be awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

While one might be against animal experimentation, it should be pointed out that the results of these tests benefitted dogs as well as humans.

One in 500 dogs may develop diabetes, with most cases being Type 1. Diabetes in dogs is similar to its human variant and insulin treats both.

Veterinarians and physicians have been using insulin to treat diabetic patients, canine and human, for over six decades.

Treatment and monitoring of diabetes in dogs are similar to that of humans, with daily injections of insulin, a balanced diet and regular blood sugar measurements.

On occasion, if insulin meant for dogs fails to work, veterinarians may turn to human insulin.

Given how dogs have stood by man’s side for generations, the knowledge they have granted us deserves to be used for their benefit as well.