Going to the Dogs

Marie Bernard ’72 discusses a citizen science study of companion dogs and how they age.

Marie A. Bernard ’72, M.D., a nationally recognized gerontologist, is deputy director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health, where she helps oversee a $3.6 billion budget, which annually supports thousands of research projects nationwide. One of those projects, the Dog Aging Project (DAP), has had high-profile coverage in TV, print, and digital media. She discussed it at the November 2019 Gerontological Society of America meeting—and with her classmate Cricket Darby ’72 for the Bulletin.

Can you provide some background on why NIA is funding research in dogs?

NIA studies “geroscience,” the intersection of basic aging biology, chronic disease, and health. As more complex animals, dogs suffer from many of the aging-associated chronic diseases of people, such as obesity, arthritis, dementia, diabetes, and cancer. Because companion dogs share our environment, studying how it affects their aging may offer insights into human aging.

In a nutshell, what is DAP?

This collaboration between Texas A&M University and the University of Washington has an overall goal of understanding how canine genes, lifestyle, and environment influence biological aging in dogs. It complements multiple NIA-funded studies of human aging.

Are there advantages to using dogs rather than studying people directly?

Timing is a key factor. Dogs age much more quickly (with one dog year roughly equivalent to seven human years) so their shorter lifespans allow for timely results. As noted by the research team, another advantage is the project’s large size. The planned enrollment of 10,000—considered quite robust—was quickly exceeded with 76,000 dogs “nominated” within a month. In contrast, human studies often have difficulty recruiting enough subjects. For this project, the decision to participate lies with the pet’s owner.

Speaking of owners, what are their responsibilities?

Owners may enroll a single companion dog. The study strives for canine diversity and inclusion, with all comers welcome: old, young, purebreds, and mutts. It represents citizen science, where ordinary dog owners make significant contributions (completing online surveys and submitting their pet’s DNA sample) but otherwise continuing usual veterinary care with no additional costs. This is also “open science,” with results freely available to all, consistent with the NIA data-sharing policy and with the crowdsourced contributions from pet owners.

Is any aspect of the study specifically related to human medicine or drug development?

The researchers describe this project as largely observational with a small interventional arm involving treatment. A subset of dogs will receive rapamycin, a drug long used to treat certain human cancers and organ transplant rejection and shown by other NIA-funded studies to extend lifespan in mice. The goal is to assess whether it can slow the aging process to achieve both longer lifespan and better “healthspan.”

One last thought concerns all those cat people who may feel left out.

As a cat person, I was happy to hear the DAP team recognize this and express their hope that others will follow their lead to study cats and other pets. Stay tuned!