• Tony and Michele Leeder-Smith with Timmy. Photo credit: The University of SydneyTony and Michele Leeder-Smith with Timmy. Photo credit: The University of Sydney

University of Sydney scientists reverse dog’s dementia after world first treatment

The breakthrough treatment given to Timmy the cocker spaniel, could offer real hope for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Scientists at the University of Sydney used stem cell therapy to treat 13-year old Timmy, who suffers from canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), a form of dementia that affect one in seven dogs aged ten or above.

Timmy lives with his owners, Tony and Michele Leeder-Smith, in regional Dapto – two hours from Sydney. Tony Leeder-Smith described how CCD affected Timmy: “He started getting up in the middle of the night and would sit in the kitchen where he would stare and bark at nothing. When his condition worsened he could no longer work out how to climb onto the bed or use the dog door.”

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction has similarities to Alzheimer’s dementia in humans. These include memory loss, getting lost around the house, nocturnal agitation and incontinence. The most common sign of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction in dogs is staring blankly at walls.

Dementia in dogs and humans is characterized by a build up of cerebral proteins known as amyloid plaques, linked to the death of large numbers of brain cells. This process typically begins in the hippocampus - the brain’s memory centre -which is why memory is often the first casualty of dementia. From there, the damage gradually spreads to interfere with general brain and bodily functions. Because the two conditions appear to be the same at a behavioural and biological level, and the brains of dogs are structurally very similar to humans, trialling results in dogs is predicted to translate well to humans.

Associate Professor Michael Valenzuela who is leading the research at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre explains: “I’m very confident that results from our trial, whether positive, negative or inconclusive, will be directly translatable to human patients.”

In August the team took a small piece of skin from Timmy’s abdomen and used it to harvest and grow-up half a million stem cell-like cells in the lab. A few weeks later the cells were injected under anesthetic into the dog’s hippocampus using Timmy’s MRI brain scan data.

By mid-November Timmy’s owners reported a significant improvement in Timmy’s night-time sleeping patterns such that he was getting up only once during the night, orientating himself through the doggie door to relieve himself, then coming back on his own to his sleeping area. He was also spontaneously more affectionate with the owners and getting along better with the other dogs in the household.

“These latest results are really very promising,” says Valenzuela, “But let’s not forget that this just the first successful patient, so we need to complete more patient transplants before we can be sure the treatment is effective.”

You can find out more about the DOGS+CELLS trial here.

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