Texas A&M: Texas A&M, UW Researchers Explore Canine Aging Project In Nature Article

In 2018, the Dog Aging Project set out to become the largest research data-gathering program of its kind, seeking to enroll and study tens of thousands of dogs from all backgrounds to gain a better understanding of canine aging and what contributes to a long and healthy life for a dog.

Following their launch, researchers at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVMBS), the University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine, and a dozen other partner institutions began to enroll companion dogs who will be followed over at least 10 years. To date, more than 32,000 dogs have been enrolled.

In a Feb. 2 publication in the journal Nature, the researchers have detailed the methodology of their project and its potential implications on both human and veterinary medicine.

“It is an honor to share our work with the scientific community,” said Dr. Kate Creevy, lead author, Dog Aging Project chief veterinary officer, and CVMBS professor of small animal internal medicine. “The Dog Aging Project is creating a resource with the power to transform veterinary medicine, aging research, and many scientific and non-scientific fields of inquiry. Publication of our methodology in Nature provides testament to the ambitious scope and wide applicability of the project.”

Their article, “An Open Science Study of Ageing in Companion Dogs,” explores the “hows” and “whys” of the study, from the recruitment and assignment of dogs into various cohorts, to the means of data collection and managing a team that spans the United States. It also discusses the ethical, legal, and social implications and anticipated scientific findings.

“The scientific objectives of this study are to identify the genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that influence aging in dogs, to discover the underlying molecular mechanisms by which they do so, and to test potential ways to increase the duration of healthy lifespan in dogs,” the authors wrote.

To accomplish these goals, the scientists are working with dog owners who periodically fill out surveys and take measurements of their dogs for the duration of the project; some also may be asked to collect cheek swabs for DNA sampling.

In addition, the research team is working with veterinarians across the country who assist by submitting fur, fecal, urine, and blood samples of select, enrolled participants.

Among the specific aims for the project are to identify biomarkers of canine aging with the intent of better understanding the mechanisms by which genetic, environmental, and lifestyle variation influence aging; they also will use genomic sequencing to analyze the genetic architecture of age-related traits in dogs.

“Given that dogs share the human environment and have a sophisticated health care system but are much shorter-lived than people, they offer a unique opportunity to identify the genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors associated with healthy lifespan,” said Dr. Daniel Promislow, principal investigator for the National Institute on Aging grant that funds the project. Promislow is a professor of biology at the UW College of Arts and Sciences and of laboratory medicine and pathology at the UW School of Medicine.

A key component of the project is a clinical trial of a drug called rapamycin, an immunosuppressive medication that has been used in humans for decades. At lower doses, rapamycin has been shown to increase lifespan, improve heart and cognitive function, and reduce age-related disease incidence in laboratory species.

The Dog Aging Project team believes rapamycin may provide similar benefits to middle-aged, large-breed dogs and are collaborating with veterinarians at universities across the country to evaluate the drug’s effectiveness on hundreds of clinical trial participants.

Ultimately, the varied, rich and complex data collected by the Dog Aging Project will allow the team to characterize aging in companion dogs, metrics for which do not currently exist. They also believe their study will lay the groundwork for canine-specific gerontology field of veterinary medicine.

“While human studies have clear metrics for healthy aging, including age-related changes in frailty and multimorbidity, among others, relatively little is known about what constitutes normative aging in dogs,” Creevy said. “Our data will give veterinarians and scientists the tools to assess how well a specific dog is aging, and set the stage for studies on the determinants of normative aging.”

Because the project is an open-data study, scientists around the world and from many different fields will have access to the massive amount of data generated, as well as the opportunity to contribute to the study in a variety of ways, based on their interests. For example, the second author on the Nature paper is noted canine and archaic human genome science researcher Joshua Akey, of Princeton University.

“This publication today in Nature is important because it lets the scientific community better understand the scope and data that will be generated in this highly interdisciplinary endeavor,” Akey said. “For example, we are generating one of the most comprehensive catalogs of canine genomic variation, which will not only provide insights into the genetic determinants of aging but can also be leveraged to learn more about the evolutionary history of domesticated dogs and how humans shaped canine genetic variation through artificial selection.”

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