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.
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.
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.”
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. Permalink