Research Offers Hope for Spinal Cord Injuries: How a Clinical Trial in Dogs May Help Human Patients
Posted July 29, 2014
Dr. Jonathan Levine’s research on spinal cord injuries in dogs
may one day help humans with similar injuries. The United States
Department of Defense seems to think so, as they have funded a
large-scale, three-year clinical trial of dogs with injuries
resulting from intervertebral disc herniation. While humans with
spinal cord injuries (SCIs) usually sustain these due to trauma,
canine disc herniation does mimic certain facets of human
cameras that track limb movements, the team measure how normal
versus injured dogs walk.
Importantly, canine disc herniation results in spinal cord
bruising and compression, as is the case with trauma in humans.
Additionally, the treatment for canine disc herniation is amazingly
similar to that which is administered to humans with spinal cord
“The animals get an MRI, they get surgery, and they get
rehabilitation,” said Levine, who is an associate professor in the
Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at the Texas A&M
College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
Using dogs with naturally occurring neurological conditions, as
opposed to rodents with induced injuries, gives a much more
realistic view of how a drug might perform in humans. However, the
study is also much more complicated because the researchers don’t
have control over a number of factors. Unlike rodents, dogs vary
widely in their genetics, the location and severity of the injury,
and time before treatment begins. Human SCIs, of course, have
“If a drug doesn’t work on dogs, that is a good indication that
it might not work in humans either,” Levine said. On the other
hand, of course, something that does work well in dogs is very
promising for human injuries.
One of the ways to determine if a treatment works is to measure
recovery of various functions, especially movement. Using infrared
cameras that can track limb movements, Levine and his team measure
how normal versus injured dogs walk. Then, in separate
collaborative projects with bioengineers at the University of
Louisville, the team can determine which muscles are activated.
“It is a very collaborative process,” Levine said. “There are
about 20 people, at a number of different institutions, who are
vital to our entire program.” The study with the U.S.
Department of Defense is a joint effort with investigators at UC
San Francisco Medical School. Scientists at University of
Louisville, Methodist Hospital, and UT Houston Medical School are
participating in an array of other projects.
“Dr. Levine’s approach is a perfect example of One Health
research,” said Dr. Eleanor M. Green, the Carl B. King Dean of
Veterinary Medicine. “The goal of his trial is to determine how
best to treat dogs with this common injury, but in so doing he is
gathering valuable data that can be used to benefit future human
sensors that will measure the dog’s limb movement.
The drug Levine and his colleagues are evaluating in the U.S.
Department of Defense canine clinical trial is a type of
neuro-protective therapy, meaning it is thought to protect the cord
by stopping events that happen soon after injury that actually make
injury worse. Specifically, the drug blocks enzymes called
metalloproteinases that are released after injury. These enzymes
break down the extracellular matrix and allow white blood cells
into the spinal cord, which only does more damage. However, these
same enzymes can be useful at later stages of injury, after the
body has started the healing process and has begun to form scar
tissue. When the enzymes are inhibited at later stages, the
patients tend to do poorly, which is why the drug therapy has to be
“If we can get to these dogs in the first 48 hours after their
injury,” Levine said, “we can give this drug—and the dogs—their
If you have a dog or a patient you think might be a candidate
for Levine’s clinical trial, please contact Alisha Selix
(firstname.lastname@example.org) or Elizabeth Scanlin (email@example.com)
For more information about the Texas A&M College of
Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, visit our website at
vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on Facebook.
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