Dogs may help detect hypoglycemia in diabetes patients, study suggests

The chemical dogs smell during a hypoglycemic episode may help researchers develop a breath test to replace finger-prick diabetes tests.
By Stephen Feller  |  June 27, 2016 at 2:11 PM
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CAMBRIDGE, England, June 27 (UPI) -- Dogs may be able to help prevent type 1 diabetes patients' blood sugar levels from dropping dangerously low by detecting the start of a hypoglycemic episode with their sense of smell.

Teaching dogs to detect higher levels of a chemical exhaled in human breath during a hypoglycemic episode could prevent potentially dangerous health conditions in diabetic patients, report researchers in England.

People with type 1 diabetes, caused by their body's inability to make insulin, are required to test their blood several times a day to make sure their sugar levels are not too high or too low.

Episodes of hypoglycemia can come on without warning, according to researchers, resulting in shakiness, disorientation and fatigue, and sometimes seizures or unconsciousness if the episode lasts for too long.

Based on reports of dogs warning their owners to changes in blood glucose, including by a pediatric diabetes specialist nurse named Claire Pesterfield, researchers at the University of Cambridge tested for the chemical change they thought dogs may be detecting in their owners.

In the case of Pesterfield, her dog, Magic, has been trained to detect when her blood sugar drops dangerously low and alerted her to thousands of mostly minor hypoglycemic episodes -- including when she was asleep -- allowing her to test her blood and then correct the problem.

"Low blood sugar is an everyday threat to me and if it falls too low -- which it can do quickly -- it can be very dangerous," Pesterfield said in a press release. "Magic is incredible -- he's not just a wonderful companion, but he's my 'nose' to warn me if I'm at risk of a hypo. If he smells a hypo coming, he'll jump up and put his paws on my shoulders to let me know."

For the study, published in the journal Diabetes Care, the researchers studied eight women with type 1 diabetes between the ages of 41 and 51 who have been treated for diabetes for at least 16 years.

In controlled conditions, the researchers slowly lowered the women's blood sugar and used mass spectrometry to detect the presence of chemicals in their breath that may change with blood sugar levels, finding isoprene rises significantly during hypoglycemia, sometimes even doubling.

The researchers say they believe dogs can detect this chemical, which humans cannot, and may be able to help some patients like Pesterfield -- whose dog will wake her up in the middle of the night if he detects a blood glucose change.

"Humans aren't sensitive to the presence of isoprene, but dogs with their incredible sense of smell, find it easy to identify and can be trained to alert their owners about dangerously low blood sugar levels," said Dr. Mark Evans, a consultant physician at Addenbrooke's Hospital at the University of Cambridge. "It provides a 'scent' that could help us develop new tests for detecting hypoglycemia and reducing the risk of potentially life-threatening complications for patients living with diabetes."

In addition to the potential for more diabetes patients to be trained to detect the chemical, researchers say they also plan to research a breath test, which may be able to replace finger-prick tests because it would be easier and cheaper.

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