Any pet owner can tell you, pets become part of the family. And for all of the differences between you and, say, your dog or cat, it turns out, our pet cats have many similarities to us humans when it comes to Type 2 diabetes.
This has possible implications not only for the health of domestic cats but also human medicine.
University of Calgary researcher Amy Warren studies cat tissue samples under a microscope. Credit: Molly Segal ( Molly Segal)
Amy Warren is a veterinary pathologist at the University of Calgary. As part of a larger research project in partnership with the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, she is trying to identify cats with Type 2 diabetes to determine what is causing the disease on the molecular level. Her research uses tissues from dead cats that were donated to veterinary research posthumously.
Warren says in cats, as in humans, Type 2 diabetes is associated with age and weight gain. “Clinically they present the same way.”
People and cats with Type 2 diabetes have a decreased number of cells producing insulin compared to those without diabetes. Without insulin, blood sugar isn’t regulated.
In both cats and humans, Type 2 diabetes is associated with age and weight gain. (John Robertson/CBC)
Human treatment for cats?
Warren says the other similarity has to do with the pancreas. The researchers need to take a closer look to learn how similar.
“They both produce a similar protein that predisposes them to producing the amyloid. But just because it looks the same under the microscope, there might be a really different way at the molecular level that it’s producing this same picture. And so we make a lot of assumptions just because it looks the same, then therefore it’s going to be the same,” Warren says.
Drugs work on a molecular level. So, if Type 2 diabetes in cats is the same as humans on a molecular level, that means different types of treatments we use for people could also be used for cats.
Chantal McMillan is another University of Calgary veterinarian involved in the research. She specializes in small animal medicine. McMillan says if you have enough similarities between two species, it’s called a “translational model.” And this research could give light on whether or not cats with Type 2 diabetes can serve as a model for people.
“They’ve been proposed that they could serve as a good model for human Type 2 diabetes, so potentially enhancing the research that’s undergone in human diabetes,” McMillan says.
If Type 2 Diabetes in cats is the same as humans on a molecular level, that means different types of treatments we use for people could also be used for cats. (Bullit Marquez/Associated Press)
Benefits in medical research
Medical research often relies on genetically modified animals like rodents. But, McMillan says there are benefits in medical research to finding naturally occurring animal models. “If we can figure out what’s going on in cats and the molecular mechanisms and we find something that potentially is useful in our feline patients maybe that could be extrapolated to humans. Certainly humans are decades ahead of us in terms of therapeutic options for Type 2 diabetes.”
Warren says comparisons like these between different species are part of a growing trend in medical research: “So you’re sort of making that extrapolation from animals into people, but also from people, which is what we’re doing, back into animals and so helping human medicine, but also at the same time helping veterinary medicine as well.”
Need for more cat donors
The researchers are still in need of more cat donors. Just like we, as people, can donate our bodies to medical research when we die, pet owners can give their cats to veterinary research when they pass away.
Dogs have also contributed a lot to diabetes research. In the early 1920s, a group of researchers at the University of Toronto
discovered insulin, and won a Nobel Prize, thanks to dogs.
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