Dogs are diagnosed with many of the same cancers as humans, with a presentation, clinical pathology, and treatment response very much like that observed in humans. We also share 85% of our DNA with our canine companions.
With this in mind, researchers hypothesize that similar genetic mechanisms cause human and canine cancers, and that genetic studies of canine disease may be a powerful way to advance our understanding of cancer in humans and companion animals alike. This field of medicine is known as comparative oncology, and looks at how the treatment of canine cancers may provide a key to unlocking a cure for cancer in all species including humans.
One of the largest comparative oncology studies going on in North America right now is the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. This study, funded by The Morris Animal Foundation — a non-profit organization located in Denver, Colorado that invests in science to advance animal health — is the first ever prospective longitudinal cohort study (the same individuals observed over the study period) attempted in veterinary medicine.
It took a team of scientists, epidemiologists, veterinary oncologists, surgeons, nutritionists, toxicologists, geneticists and breeders, over three years to design the study. It was launched in August, 2012, under the direction of principal investigator, Dr. Rodney Page, veterinary oncologist and director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University.
One important goal of the study is to identify major risk factors — such as diet, genetics, lifestyle and living environment — for the development of cancer and other important diseases in dogs. In total, 3,000 purebred Golden Retrievers are now being followed, starting from about the age of two until the end of life. The 3,000th dog was enrolled in the spring of 2015, so data collection is very much underway.
Golden Retrievers are an excellent fit for this study for a number of reasons. Goldens are one of the most popular breeds in the U.S., so the chance of recruiting 3,000 dogs in a reasonable time frame was achievable. Only studying purebred Golden Retrievers reduces the genetic variability that comes with studying mixed-breed dogs. Golden Retrievers also have a high risk of developing cancer (over 60 per cent of Goldens will develop cancer in their lifetime).
Half of the study dogs are male, half are female and half of each gender are intact and half are spayed/neutered, so the study team will be able to consider gender-related factors and timing of spaying/neutering in relation to the development of cancer.
With 3,000 Golden Retrievers comes a diverse population of guardians, which means the dogs are exposed to a wide variety of lifestyles and living conditions shared by their humans. From the data being collected, the study team is developing a lifetime dataset of environmental exposures, dietary history, lifestyle, activity, as well as simultaneous biological samples. The entire data/sample collection phase should be complete in 10-14 years. Comparable work in humans would require decades.
Over 2,000 veterinarians from across the U.S. are involved in the study and see the dogs on a annual basis. By the end of the study, the researchers will have a detailed story of the lifetime of every dog who enrolled. All the data and the biological samples being collected will be stored so that years from now, scientists can continue to answer new questions about health and wellness issues in dogs, and ultimately in people too.
A Facebook page has been set up where participating families and veterinarians are profiled in an effort to honour and recognize the tremendous commitment everyone is making.
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Author: Susan Crawford, M.Sc.
The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
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