Instead of eagerly getting ready for walks, gleefully tossing around toys, and excitedly greeting their humans at the door, dogs with osteoarthritis become listless, lethargic, and, at times, irritable. It is heartbreaking for the owners to see this painful condition that makes life difficult for their dogs.

Now, the University of Colorado Boulder developed a novel gene therapy that brings happiness back into the lives of pets and their owner.

“It’s not just helping the dogs, but when you start talking to owners, they lost their family member. They don’t play anymore or want to go for walks because it hurts so badly. They’ve lost their doghood. And this therapy brings that back.

All the things you think of with a happy dog that comes back again, and owners are so thrilled.” said Linda Watkins, CU Boulder Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

Watkins, Broomfield, and veterinary pain specialist Dr. Rob Landry are recruiting dogs with severe osteoarthritis (and their owners) to help test the second generation of non-viral gene therapy that hopes to improve therapeutic toward a federal veterinary clinical trial.

Dogs that are accepted into the double-blind study must be able to visit Dr. Landry’s veterinary hospital regularly for several months for evaluations and assessments. Participation in this study is free, but owners must pay for an initial consultation to determine the dog’s eligibility or already have an osteoarthritis diagnosis and x-rays.

“Dogs in the control group will get a placebo. However, after the initial study period ends, their owners can opt-in to receiving the free therapy as well, Watkins said. The condition is common among senior dogs and large breeds, but there’s no known cure. It can be so painful and debilitating that some owners opt to euthanize their dogs to end their suffering”, Dr. Landry said.

The gene therapy called Interleukin 10 or IL-10 manages the production of a natural protein. The body produces to dial back its inflammation response to an injury or infection. During an initial study, Dr. Landry from Colorado Center for Animal Pain Management Veterinary Care
Center skillfully injected a solution containing circular DNA molecules directly into dogs’ osteoarthritic joints to produce more IL-10 to reduce inflammation.

Watkins and Dr. Landry tried this gene therapy on more than 40 Colorado canine companions, from Siberian huskies to golden retrievers to mixed-breed dogs. They got good results, which led to the launch of human clinical trials for osteoarthritis in Australia and California.

After the treatment, participating pups could more comfortably walk, run, go up and down stairs and stand up. Their owners also reported improved quality of life and less pain. “The dogs are happier and far less dependent on medications,” said Dr. Landry, an adjunct professor in the CU Boulder Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. “It’s amazing research. It made impacts on people’s lives for sure, and pets’ lives without a doubt.”

They modify the therapy and believe the new version will “come on stronger and last longer,” Watkins said. After years of delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, they are ready to test the second generation of the therapy on dogs. With the results, Watkins and

Dr. Landry hope to gain approval from the veterinary arm of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for testing the second-generation therapy in canine clinical trials. They also hope to see widespread adoption of the said therapy in veterinary practices in the country.

“Owners should think of this as trying to help their dog, but it’s also for the greater good of dogs—they can be part of something that can move into an FDA clinical trial to make the world a much better place for dogs with osteoarthritis,” Watkins said.

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