Similarities between dogs and people are well studied, so it’s unsurprising that researchers discovered a test used to diagnose amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in people is applicable to identifying degenerative myelopathy (DM) in dogs.
The genetic link between the diseases was established in 2009 by Joan Coates, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, a professor at the University of Missouri (MU) Department of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery, and other researchers at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard.
While the current genetic test for DM can identify risk for the disease, it’s limited in its ability to diagnose it. Therein lies the problem, because as of now, a proper DM diagnosis is time-consuming and expensive, requiring procedures such as MRIs of the spinal cord, according to Dr. Coates.
“DM is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that veterinarians must rule out all other diseases that mimic it before coming to a final diagnosis,” Coates said. “Now that we know that DM and ALS are related, we are studying ways to diagnose and measure disease progression with similar diagnostic modalities used in ALS patients.”
Coates and her MU colleagues have developed a simple DM diagnostic test based on a similar one used to diagnose ALS in humans. Specifically, they found elevated levels of phosphorylated neurofilament heavy proteins (pNF-H) in the cerebrospinal fluid and blood samples—the same biomarkers appear in humans with ALS—of dogs with DM compared to dogs without it.
“These results will enable us to ‘scale up’ the test to make it more accessible to [the] veterinary community,” Coates said. “pNF-H may serve as a diagnostic tool for diagnosis of DM.”
With the link between ALS and DM established and a new test making diagnosis easier, now Coates and her team are seeking pets to take part in a clinical research trial into treatments for DM that slow its progression and improve the patient’s quality of life.
The MU research team is collaborating with other ALS scientists, and the studies are being funded by the ALS Association and National Institutes of Health.
“Dogs suffer from more than 350 genetic disorders, many of which resemble human conditions,” said Ewen Kirkness, Ph.D., a molecular biologist at the Institute for Genomic Research, now the J. Craig Venter Institute, in Rockville, Md. “The genes responsible for these are probably constant to humans and dogs.”
The research by Coates and others shows that benefits can be derived by taking a closer look at these links.
“I was very excited by the idea that there could be another model that might have more strength than the existing models,” said Michael Garcia, Ph.D., an assistant biology professor and principal investigator at the MU Bond Life Sciences Center, who is working with Coates on the research, about the new DM diagnostic test.
The DM treatment trial will occur at the MU Veterinary Health Center Small Animal Hospital; dog owners interested in their pet participating can email firstname.lastname@example.org.