By Joseph Harvey
Canine diabetes is an increasingly pressing issue in the US. With this in mind, Animal Pharm met a Kansas City-based start-up developing a regenerative medicine to treat diabetes in dogs. Senior reporter Joseph Harvey spoke to Likarda about the viability of islet transplantation as a cure for dog diabetes.
The screening of new diabetes drugs is traditionally executed using flat monolayers of the body’s insulin-producing cells. However, this process makes it difficult to predict how the resulting drugs will react inside a patient’s body.
Likarda has been working on a way to solve this problem, with a particular focus on treating diabetes in dogs. The firm has developed 3D islet cell clusters, called Kanslets – a tribute to the company’s home state of Kansas. These Kanslets can be used to screen for new drugs to treat diabetes, but also have the potential to be used as a therapeutic treatment of the disease.
In 2000, islet transplantation was developed as treatment for type 1 diabetes mellitus in humans. As the popularity of the procedure grew, 32 islet transplant sites were opened in the US. However, this dropped to 14 due to the lack of donor tissue for islets – 2-3 donors are often required for one recipient. Treatment of human diabetes with islet cells has been progressing. However, the limited supply of islets has been a drawback.
When researching the development of this treatment for use in dogs and cats, Lisa Stehno-Bittel, president and co-founder of Likarda, and her team set about creating a better islet. The end product was the Kanslet – a small organically-engineered islet, which can be efficiently produced on a large scale.
Companion animal diabetes
One in 160 dogs or cats is diabetic in the US. Likarda estimates that the number of diabetic dogs and cats in the US has increased three-fold in the last 30 years. There are around 195,000 dogs in the US with diabetes and 216,000 cats with the illness.
The standard of care for most pet diabetes is two injections a day with insulin designed for use in humans. This process is inconvenient, time-consuming and stressful. Dr Stehno-Bittel said it is difficult to match the insulin level to the animal’s blood glucose levels.
In February 2013, a research team at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) in Spain claimed to be the first to have cured type 1 diabetes in dogs experimentally. The research team used a single session of gene therapy to cure the disease. The research shows some dogs were monitored for more than four years with no recurrence of symptoms.
The minimally-invasive cure consists of a single session of various injections in the animal’s rear legs using needles that are commonly used in cosmetic treatments. These injections introduce gene therapy vectors designed to express the insulin gene and glucokinase, which is an enzyme that regulates the uptake of glucose from the blood.
However, Likarda said while the gene therapy research is exciting, it is not yet a viable treatment. The firm told Animal Pharm the Spanish research holds great potential but it remains unsure how far it advances the possibility of treating diabetes in pets.
Dr Stehno-Bittel explained diabetes has been cured many times before in experimental diabetic animal models. Few of these successful treatments translated into meaningful cures for companion animals or humans. “So while this study is very exciting, those of us working in this field have been excited about scientific discoveries, only to be disappointed later,” she added.
Karthik Ramachandran, the firm’s vice-president and co-founder, said commercialization of Likarda’s product is on the horizon. He said the firm is only a few months away from initiating full clinical studies in dogs.
Route to success
To date, Likarda’s Kanslets have been used to cure diabetes in rats. According to Dr Stehno-Bittel, the Likarda treatment has avoided the potential pitfalls that could hinder an implantation treatment: there is an ample supply of donor tissue; the Kanslets can be stored safely; the implantation procedure is fairly non-invasive; and no immunosuppression is required.
The company will first look to commercialize its therapy for dogs, with the feline product to follow. In the longer term, Likarda can adopt its technology platform to treat bone and cartilage injuries, tissue deficiencies and the gastrointestinal tract.
Likarda’s work is divided into two segments. Firstly, the firm uses its cell cluster know-how to act as a contract research organization called LikardaBio. This work includes secondary drug screening to test compounds targeted at diabetes markets and primary compound screening with organotypic species-specific screens for diseases such as cancer.
Dr Ramachandran explained: “Our CRO business funds part of our work in diabetes treatment. The rest is funded by the founders.” He explained the company’s customers for its CRO work range from large pharmaceutical manufacturers to burgeoning start-ups.
The second side of the business is the development of its diabetes cure for companion animals. This segment of the firm is called Likarda Animal Health. Dr Ramachandran said the company is funded through the end of 2013 and is currently aiming to secure commercial partnerships.