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Scientists work to outsmart overactive immune systems

By Alex Jimenez

It’s no secret that dogs and cats have extraordinary immune systems. Like many animals, they are biologically engineered to fight off an array of diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi and more. However, for cats and dogs affected by the mysterious and often fatal disease known as immune-mediated hemolytic anemia (IMHA), a relentless immune system can quickly become a pet’s own worst enemy.

More common in dogs, IMHA is a condition in which the immune system of an affected animal attacks and kills its own red blood cells. The devastating disorder—also known as AIHA (autoimmune hemolytic anemia)—results in the death of more than 50 percent of affected animals. In many cases, the animal dies within weeks of diagnosis. 

To make matters worse, very little is known about why IMHA occurs. The disease is so complex that more than 70 percent of the diagnosed cases are idiopathic, meaning there is no identifiable underlying cause.

But all hope is not lost. By funding studies that bring together some of the most current research on IMHA, Morris Animal Foundation is shedding new light on this elusive disease. 

fighting back

In a study at Cornell University, principal investigator Dr. Tracy Stokol and her team made significant progress toward uncovering the cause of blood clot formation (thrombosis) in dogs affected with IMHA. Blood clots occur frequently in dogs with IMHA and often lead to fatal complications.

Typically, IMHA treatment involves blood transfusions, the number depending on the disease’s severity. Transfusions can effectively replenish red blood cells, but they can also increase the risk that a dog will form a fatal blood clot. Dr. Stokol wants to decrease the risk.

“Preventing clot formation can increase the likelihood that dogs will survive IMHA,” she states.

In her research, Dr. Stokol tested three inflammation-related proteins for their association with a protein called tissue factor, the primary trigger in blood clotting. Although two proteins were proven not to have any associations with tissue factor, C-reactive protein showed a very high correlation. Future research will work to confirm this.

new treatments

Foundation-funded researchers at the University of Minnesota are also addressing the issue of blood clots. However, instead of trying to find out why blood clots form, they are working toward developing new treatments.

The principal investigator, Dr. David Polzin, is comparing the effectiveness of aspirin with use of individually adjusted doses of the anticoagulant drug heparin to increase survival rates in dogs with IMHA. Although the research is still in mid-stride, Dr. Polzin hypothesizes that heparin treatments could yield some game-changing results.

“This could mean a new standard therapy for IMHA cases, inevitably taking the field of veterinary science a step closer to reducing mortality rates,” says Dr. Polzin. “And that’s what it’s all about.”

discovering hope

It’s thanks to studies like these that there is some glimmer of hope in the battle against this terrible disease. However, these efforts would not be possible if it weren’t for donors like the Meisha's Hope AIHA/IMHA Fund #338. Created in memory of Meisha—a dog that through rigorous treatment defied all odds and lived 10 years past her diagnosis of IMHA—the fund is dedicated to backing IMHA-specific research.

More research is needed to give IMHA-affected dogs the chance to live as long as Meisha did. Morris Animal Foundation appreciates support from Meisha’s Hope and other causes like it as we work toward making that a reality.

Posted by MAFon April 10, 2012.

Categories: Animal health, Dog diseases, Dog health


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Submitted by lynn at: December 18, 2012
this is the worst disease seems more and more pets are getting this dog's as well as little one a chihuahua is now in remission of IMHA. very scarey and i fear a relasp. i watch everything heart goes out for all the fur babies with this diseaseand the pet parents i know what it is like with all the many ups and downs.bless all who have and are dealing with this terrible,awful,nasty heartbreaking disease. lynn &( hayley fur child)
Submitted by Debbie at: October 27, 2012
Trixie, is a 12 yr old German Shepard mix who I adopted 11yrs ago. She was diagnosed 5 wks ago and is going through a rigorous treatment of meds and has had 6 blood transfusions. Last week her bct was 36 & suffering from severe colitis. This week her bct is 28 along with sores along her spine, hind leg. Vet is slowing weaning her from the harsh meds. I pray for those suffering from this horrible disease.
Submitted by Bernz at: October 25, 2012
Does the research that Dr. David Polzin is doing also help when humans have the disease? Will this study help both? I am doing a project on Hemolytic anemia and need to find current research being done and am wondering if any readers know. Thank you!
Submitted by Sandie T at: September 11, 2012
My beloved papillon mix Finnigan passed away 137 days after his IMHA diagnosis. The IMHA didn't get him but complications from his treatments did. His illness became a lifestyle for both of us. My heart goes out to anyone dealing with this disease. I am a supporter of the Meisha's Hope fund as are family and friends who have generously memorialized Finn to help find a cure/treatment for IMHA. Thank you to all who continue to support research and for Meisha's Hope that created awareness, education and a much needed support team. I pray for the day that we can all celebrate the end of IMHA.
Submitted by Jane Boeck at: June 18, 2012
Our cocker spaniel, Aussie, died 20 hours after diagnosis of AIHI from DIC after a transfusion. She was the first case ever seen in our area. Years later lightening struck twice when our champion cocker was diagnosed. She survived many years. The Dicksons and MAF #338 are doing such wonderful work. We are blessed to have them in our lives. We now only Titer and know blood type on all our dogs. Some day. Some day we'll have the answer.
Submitted by lynn at: June 11, 2012
i am wondering why so many pets more than ever are getting IMHA. my vet said they are seeing this disease in numbers where it use to only very few if any cases... my little chihuahua is effected by this awful disease too. is it over loading of shots flea meds heartworm and the bad food the dog food companies are making. so many things that we thought were good are now being shown bad for our beloved can we protect against this disease? it seems no answer's are there. someting is going wrong some where if vets are seeing these cases in numbers.
Submitted by lynn at: May 8, 2012
it is the worst thing that my little chihuahua hayley and i have been in together.i just feel so very helpless as a pet mom.the very serious medications scare me as bad as this terrible awful nast unfair disease it's battle since 9th of march.
Submitted by Fran Balsis at: April 22, 2012
I will continue to support Meishas Hope. I will not give till you find a cure for this devastating disease. I lost my Miniature Schnauzer Katie to this in 2008. Katie was only 5 years old. I make a donation in her name every Christmas. She was a great dog, and she died of a blood clot. Thank You for all your work fighting this disease.
Submitted by Brenda Heaster at: April 16, 2012
We've supported the Meisha's Hope Fund for 7 years to honor our beloved Wiley, whom we lost to IMHA on 19 May 2205. Thanks to Joanne Dickson for establishing it to fund research for better treatment.We shall overcome.
Submitted by Sharon Hopkins at: April 16, 2012
I lost my beloved Bailey from this disease 5 wks ago and his half brother from the same, 8 yrs ago. This is a heartbreaking disease and I will continue to support it for the cure.
Submitted by Amy at: April 16, 2012
My dog survived IMHA and within a year was diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease on top of it. She wound up being on prednisone for 7 years straight amongst other drugs. On top of it all she was a dachshund mix and had back issues. She was a fighter tho and lived to be 13! We miss her so much.
Submitted by Diane Richardson at: April 16, 2012
I lost my darling sweet 2 1/2 yr old Rottweiler to AIHA in the summer of 2010. She was slightly improving when a blood clot sent her into fatal cardiac arrest. I pray a treatment or cure is found so others don't suffer like both my girl and my family did
Submitted by Penny Carlson at: April 16, 2012
I have been donating to Meisha's Hope for 6 years now and will continue to do so in the hopes that better treatments will be found.
Submitted by Mike Apker at: April 16, 2012
One of my pet Mini-Schnauzers contracted this deadly disease. She passed away within three days of getting sick and was very tragic. I miss her still after nine years.
Submitted by Debby Fitch at: April 9, 2012
This is a devastating disease. I will continue to fund research until a cure is found.