Losing the ability to sense low blood sugars is one of the scariest things for those of us living with diabetes.
For one college student at Purdue University, that hypoglycemia unawareness led to an average of three ER visits a week (!) Even with a CGM, this young man diagnosed with type 1 at age 5 wasn't able to avoid the insulin reactions because they came on too quickly. It got to the point where he was close to leaving school, unable to finish his degree in chemistry.
But with the help of a diabetes alert dog named Tippy, that college student cut his ER visits down to zero, pretty much eliminated his insulin reactions, and is now finishing his college degree.
This was the story told recently at the American Diabetes Association's Scientific Sessions, as this young man and Tippy the dog were the first to be a part of a venture between Eli Lilly and the Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN) in training hypo alert dogs. But more than that, their story is paving the way to providing the first-ever scientific evidence of how training using dogs to help PWDs live better actually works.
That's right: Eli Lilly researcher Dr. Dana Hardin (with colleagues Dr. Dustin Hillman from Indianapolis and Jennifer Cattet from West Lafayette, IN) presented the first-ever scientific findings about D-Alert Dogs sensing capabilities and how that's helped people living with diabetes. The data represents a significant step forward in actually proving the benefit of these dogs, something that has historically only been anecdotal but not backed up by research.
While this initial research was focused on one dog only, as part of a program based in Central Indiana, the results have implications for Diabetes Service Dog programs everywhere, not to mention all the PWDs who have or might need one of these dogs.
"We know that service dogs make a great impact in life, so we decided to show scientifically that this is a real thing," Hardin said.
We sat down for a few minutes at the Scientific Sessions with Dr. Hardin, a pediatric endo from Ohio that I met in May at the Lilly Diabetes Blogger Summit. On the canine side, we also got to meet and hang out with Pete, a two-year-old black lab fully trained for hypo alert service. Pete was the only D-Alert dog at the Scientific Sessions, and he was happy to get a break while Dr. Hardin and I chatted about what he and his furry friends are doing to help us people with diabetes!
Dr. Hardin seemed excited to talk about how the dogs can sense a hypo better than a CGM — within 15 minutes of it happening — and the fact that the devices often aren't completely accurate and don't alert us until a low blood sugar has already started.
We talked about training the dogs and how they alert folks to a low: first they bump you under the arm and then can go find someone else or even dial 911 and fetch an orange juice from the refrigerator! It's not clear what the dogs actually sense, but it may be a volatile organic acid in a PWD's body, Hardin says.
Scientific details can be found in the abstract of her ADA presentation (see 381-P), and a bigger study is underway. They are training to determine specifically what the dogs sense.
Hardin says she needs samples of sweat from type 1s, to help train these dogs to sense hypoglycemia. The program needs two types of samples from each PWD: one taken during an in-range reading between 80-110 mg/dL, and one from a low BG between 45-70 mg/dL. Participating is easy enough; all you do is use a specific cotton pad to swipe your forehead and back, and then put them separately into ziplock bags, blowing on them before sealing, and send them back right away.
Those interested in participating can reach out directly to the ICAN program, which will provide more detailed instructions. Hardin actually has a study coming up on July 19, and could use samples by then! So, anyone who's able to help immediately and get a pair of samples back to Indianapolis by July 13 would be included in that study about what the dogs sense! Potential participants can contact Dr. Hardin at firstname.lastname@example.org, or ICAN at (317) 250-6450 or by email at Jennifer@icandog.org or email@example.com.
To learn more about these life-saving dogs, have a look at our chat with Dr. Hardin and her friend Pete (excuse the somewhat weak audio - busy conference!):