Q&A about leishmaniasis research involving dogs
Statement from the University of Iowa
The development of new treatments for dogs often requires canine studies. As part of its research mission to improve and extend the life of humans and animals, the University of Iowa conducted research on the zoonotic disease, leishmaniasis. All dogs in the research study contracted Leishmania naturally, meaning they were exposed to infection in the course of their regular life – not as part of an experiment at the University of Iowa.
The dogs involved in the study were previously diagnosed with leishmaniasis, a fatal disease, and enrolled after their diagnosis with informed consent from their caretakers. The research was initiated by the people whose dogs were suffering from leishmaniasis. Those caretakers worked hand-in-hand with UI researchers to establish what would happen during the study and what knowledge and treatments would be gained.
All activities were approved by the University of Iowa Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Animal research entails several layers of veterinary and legal oversight to ensure proper care. As a result, the research has discovered many remarkable lifesaving and life-extending treatments for cats, dogs, farm animals, wildlife, and endangered species.
Q: What is Leishmaniasis
A: Leishmaniasis is caused by a microscopic parasite named Leishmania infantum. Symptoms for infected patients might include skin sores, fever and the swelling of internal organs. In severe cases, the condition can be fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leishmaniasis infections can be found in approximately 90 countries throughout the tropics, subtropics and southern Europe. In Northern Africa, where the disease is commonly found, leishmaniasis mainly impacts children under the age of five. Leishmaniasis also poses a threat to U.S. troops and other personnel, as well as U.S. military dogs, living in areas where the disease is endemic.
Leishmaniasis is spread by sand flies which serve as the vector (or mode of transportation) for the Leishmania infantum parasite. Domesticated dogs often serve as a natural reservoir for the disease, meaning that human infections can occur when the parasite is passed from infected dogs to humans via sand fly bites.
Q: Why are UI researchers studying leishmaniasis
A: Leishmaniasis affects people and animals more than countries around the globe, and the presence of Leishmania is increasing in the United States. The disease can be life-threatening and can pass from mother to child through the placenta. (Read more about research on mother-child transmission here.) An estimated 20,000–40,000 people die of leishmaniasis each year, and millions more are at risk for the disease.
This research is a part of the University of Iowa’s research mission to improve and extend the life of humans and animals. The long-term goal is understanding how to best protect people and animals from vector-borne diseases through effective treatment and/or vaccination.
Q: What role do dogs have in researching potential therapies and vaccines for the disease?
A: Dogs are vulnerable to leishmaniasis and are a known source of infection for other dogs and people. As the reservoir of Leishmania infantum, dogs play a very important role in harboring the disease in a community that can spread by the bite of a little fly, called a sand fly, to other dogs and to people.
Finding ways to prevent the spread of parasites from infected dogs is critical both to help other dogs in the community not get infected, but also helps protect kids and other vulnerable populations.
Q: Were dogs infected with leishmania as a part of this study?
A: No. All dogs in our research study contracted Leishmania naturally, meaning that they were exposed to infection in the course of their regular life – not as part of an experiment at the University of Iowa.
By studying naturally infected dogs, researchers gain new knowledge that will help diagnose, treat, and/or prevent Leishmania infections in our pets and in people. This is especially important for dogs because those that are infected with Leishmania are particularly vulnerable to other infectious diseases.
Q: What is the informed consent process in this study?
A: The dogs involved in the study were previously diagnosed with leishmaniasis, a fatal disease, and then enrolled with informed consent from their caretakers.
The research was initiated by the people whose dogs were suffering from leishmaniasis. Those caretakers worked hand-in-hand with UI researchers to establish what would happen during the study and what knowledge and treatments would be gained.
Q: What can this research achieve, and what’s next?
A: The long-term goal is understanding how to best protect people and animals from vector-borne diseases through effective treatment and/or vaccination. The ultimate goal is to help animals, including our pets, and people live longer, healthier lives.
The development of new treatments for dogs often requires canine studies. Animal research has discovered many remarkable lifesaving and life-extending treatments for cats, dogs, farm animals, wildlife, and endangered species.
Q: What are the regulations and policies in place to ensure that animals are well cared for?
A: Animal research for animal health entails several layers of veterinary and legal oversight to ensure proper care. All activities were reviewed and approved by the University of Iowa Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.
The University of Iowa has an unwavering commitment to the health and well-being of research animals, which are valuable resources in the effort to develop new treatments for a range of health conditions and diseases, including cancer, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, childhood blindness, macular degeneration, and many others. From developing over-the-counter medications to advancing life-saving treatments, this high-impact research helps people and animals live longer, healthier lives.
We strongly support the development of non-animal alternate approaches for research. Although advancements are being made every day, at this time, alternative approaches cannot accurately replicate or model all biologic and behavioral aspects of human and animal disease. Therefore, it is still necessary for the research community to conduct humane and responsible animal research in order to discover and implement new cures for diseases.
Q: Why is research regarding zoonotic diseases like leishmaniasis particularly relevant today?
A: Zoonotic diseases are emerging infectious diseases that spread between animals and people. Zoonotic infections — such as West Nile Virus, Mpox, Lyme disease — have been increasing the last couple decades. One major factor is the increase in global travel and commerce. Human and animal movement across continents and international trade via planes, ships, and cargo containers can transport infectious agents from their original location into novel territories.
One way to attack the frequency of zoonotic diseases in people is by removing the risk of infection by treating or preventing disease in the original host. This research looks at the big picture of the ecology of disease and identifies possible solutions to reduce the rate of infection.
Q: It has been reported than this study received $10M in federal funding. Is that accurate?
A: No. The dollar amount referenced in several websites is inaccurate.
This research was funded by a grant (R01 TW010500) from the Fogarty International Center, National Institutes of Health, which totaled $2.4M over five years.
This work was completed while one researcher on the project was also supported by the University of Iowa Interdisciplinary Immunology Postdoctoral Training Grant (T32AI007260) from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health.
The Immunology Postdoctoral Training Grant training Grant (T32AI007260) grant has supported research projects on campus for 35 years. That research helps people and animals across generations and the world live longer, healthier lives. It is not accurate to associate the grant’s total funding amount with one single project.