AUSTIN, Texas — A team of researchers is hoping old dogs can teach aging science new tricks. The scientists, with the backing of the U.S National Institute on Aging, have launched an ambitious project in which they want dog owners to enrol canines in a study of aging in man’s best friend, hoping it will help both dogs and humans live longer and better lives.
The “citizen scientists” will answer dozens of questions about their pooches over the lifetime of the animals, such as how much and how often they exercise, what they eat and how much, and their interactions with people or other pets in the household.
“These dogs will be doing what they do normally,” said Daniel Promislow, co-director of the Dog Aging Project.
Dog owners are very well-attuned to changes in their dog’s behaviour, which makes their observations valuable to science. “It’s the power of paying attention,” Promislow said.
As part of the study, a small number of the dogs will provide DNA, blood and urine samples. A select group of middle-aged canines will also be enrolled in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of a drug that has already been shown to increase the lifespan of mice in the hope of determining whether it will have the same effect on dogs.
In the long run, the study, which has $22.8 million U.S. in funding from the National Institute on Aging, will help the scientists understand the factors that affect “healthspan” — the proportion of life that is spent in good health.
The project was launched last Thursday with a splashy media conference at the annual scientific meeting of the American Gerontological Society in Austin. While the official goal is to enrol 10,000 canines, the researchers aspire to follow as many as 100,000 dogs.
Within a few hours of announcing the project, 16,000 dog owners had “nominated” their pets online.
The hypothesis in gerontology circles is that, if aging can be delayed, it will also delay chronic diseases such as arthritis and Type 2 diabetes, leading to a longer and healthier life, said Dr. Marie Bernard, a geriatrician and deputy director of the National Institute on Aging.
Researchers have already shown they can increase the lifespans of yeast, fruit flies and mice through a number of measures, including caloric restriction, periodic fasting and administering a combination of metformin, which reduces blood sugar, and the immunosuppressant drug rapamycin.
Jay Olshansky, a respected expert in pushing the boundaries of longevity, has estimated that curing cancer, heart disease or both in humans would only extend life expectancy by between three and eight years. However, slowing aging could extend life expectancy by over 30 years, and it would maximize the portion of life free of chronic disease and disability.
“Those years would be spent in fairly good health,”’ said Matt Kaeberlein, co-director of the Dog Aging Project.
“It sounds like science fiction, but it’s science fact.”
Nature has figured out how to modify the rates of aging in different species, Kaeberlein said. The naked mole rat, a burrowing rodent native to East Africa, can live to be more than 30 years old, for example, while most mice and rats live only a few years.
The Dog Aging Project’s goal is to understand the genetic and environmental factors behind dog aging. Dogs age about seven times faster than humans, so data on thousands of dogs over their lifespan would yield important information about what correlates with a long and healthy life for a dog over an accelerated time frame.
In general, larger animals live longer than smaller animals, but the reverse is true in dogs. A chihuahua has a longer life expectancy than a Great Dane, for example, said Dr. Kate Creevy, a professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University and a member of the research team. Mixed-breed dogs also live, on average, about a year longer than purebred counterparts.
The researchers will also be searching for dogs who have led exceptionally long lives: the canine equivalent of human centenarians.
The project is an open science initiative. Eventually the raw data, with confidential information scrubbed from it, will be available to any researcher who wants to use it to seek out patterns, including members of the public.
The study is open to dogs of all breeds and ages, but so far funding for the research is limited to dogs in the United States, Promislow said.
Rapamycin has been shown to restore heart function and boost immunity in middle-aged mice. It has already been used on a small number of dogs in a research study and their owners have noted no negative side effects and some positive side effects, including that the dogs were more energetic and affectionate.
“People love their dogs. Our No. 1 priority is the safety of the dogs,” Promislow said.
Rapamycin is approved for a limited number of uses in humans, including preventing rejection in organ transplantation. It appears to dampen the inflammation that comes with aging, but it’s still a long way from being approved as an aging delay drug for humans, Kaeberlein said.
This is a longitudinal study, which means it will follow the subjects over their entire lives. While researcher often have problems keeping in touch with their subjects in longitudinal studies, dog owners involved in research have been remarkably co-operative in previous long-term studies, he said.
“This is the most ambitious project on companion dogs and one of the most ambitious projects on aging,” Promislow said. “We’ll have tons of data.”
Joanne Laucius was awarded a 2019 journalism fellowship in aging by the Gerontological Society of America. The program is funded by the Silver Century Foundation, the Retirement Research Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund and the John A. Hartford Foundation.
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