It's one of the hardest things for people who have dogs -- watching their four-legged companions start to slow down as their ages creep toward that double-digit marker. An ongoing study out of the University of Washington hopes to yield new understanding of how and why those signs of aging happen, and potentially help to extend the years of healthy life.
The Dog Aging Project -- spearheaded Daniel Promislow, a professor in the university's departments of pathology and biology, and Matt Kaeberlein, professor of pathology and adjunct professor of genome sciences -- aims to be the largest study on dog aging ever conducted. It is a two-pronged project, geared toward not only ensuring longer and healthier lives for man's best friend but also at shedding light on human longevity.
In the first phase of the study, Kaeberlein has been conducting a clinical trial of a drug called rapamycin, which was initially tested on mice and appeared to significantly extend their lifespans. A first, 10-week safety trial of the drug showed large-breed, middle-aged dogs who took the drug exhibited improved heart function.
The next big step in the Dog Aging Project will involve studying 10,000 companion dogs, looking at their genetics and health history over time to ultimately create what Promislow said could be a game-changing "citizen science" project -- a public database that could be used by veterinarians and researchers around the world to better understand canine aging.
The early stages
The project started with rapamycin, which is traditionally used in people who received organ transplants to make sure the immune system won't reject the introduction of foreign tissue to the body. The drug has been shown to increase the life spans of flies, worms, and yeast by 25 percent.
Of course, Kaeberlein said that before any tests were carried out on dogs, ethical concerns had to be addressed.
"At some point the idea came to me that maybe we could take some of what we learned about the biology of aging and use that to improve the quality of life for dogs," Kaeberlein told CBS News, about the early stages of the project. "The first question in my mind, when it came to clinical tests, was that I would never want to do studies on dogs in a laboratory environment. These are people's pets. If we do a drug study, we can do it safely. The first thing in a test like this is to make sure that we don't harm any pets."
After tests on lab mice proved they did not suffer adverse health effects, the drug was determined to be safe for dogs. Kaeberlein said the response to their plans for study was immense: more than 1,500 dog owners applied to be part of the initial 10-week trial, which recently concluded.
Kaeberlein said that once Promislow came on board, the scope of the overall project expanded. The objective of the next part of the project is to follow all kinds of dogs as they age -- not in labs, but dogs that actually live with their owners at home -- to study what happens as they are exposed to the various factors of day-to-day life while bounding into old age.
"The more dogs we measure, the more you learn about how the environment impacts them, how their genetics impact them. Think about yourself, think about the genetics from your parents and grandparents, think about the kind of diet you had as a kid, the air you breathed -- all of those things were effective into shaping who you are now in terms of your health and your behavior. It's the same for dogs," Promislow told CBS News.
Man's best friend
For the two researchers, the project is personal. They are both dog lovers themselves. Promislow has one dog named Frisbee, a 9-year-old Chow mix, while Kaeberlein's dogs are Dobby, a 4-year-old German Shepherd, and Chloe, a 10-year-old Keeshond.
Attracting interest for the project was not hard for either researcher. Promislow, who usually works with fruit flies, said the appeal of potentially finding anti-aging solutions for dogs is not a difficult sell to the average person.
"Everywhere I go -- nobody says 'I love fruit flies,'" Promislow joked.
"The big benefit that this project will provide is that it has the potential to change the way some people view science. Most people like dogs and like the idea of a scientific project that involves dogs. A couple of high school teachers, actually, have contacted me wanting to learn more about the Dog Aging Project," Kaeberlein added. "The larger, longitudinal project -- the data-driven project -- is aimed at engaging the public in that data, to make that data available so that high school students and people working on science projects could use and interact with that data. There's the positive potential that this kind of science could have a transformative way in addressing how people view science."
It also has the potential for impacting what humans know about ourselves. Promislow said it's "astounding" to observe the great strides in genomics research made over the past decade. The information gleaned from how environmental factors impact dogs could be useful in comparatively looking at human aging. Similarly, if the drug tests end up conclusively showing some sort of slowing down of canine aging, it opens up the possibility of drug solutions for the adverse effects of human aging.
A veterinary game-changer?
The project could also be a game-changer for veterinarians. Kate E. Creevy, an associate professor at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine, said the study promises to fill a void of missing data in the veterinary field. She will supervise recruitment and enrollment of the 10,000 dogs whose owners sign up through the project from Texas A&M.
Given that most federal research funding "understandably" is awarded to human medicine, Creevy said those in her field have to turn to outside grants and individual donations to support their research. Similarly, trials are often not as conclusive as they could be since researchers often have only a small number of subjects to work with.
"Veterinary records are not required to be standardized, it's really difficult to pool medical records, there's a short amount of data that's not entered in the same way as data in human medicine. It limits our abilities to do this kind of work," she told CBS News.
The longitudinal study that Promislow hopes to produce with his years-long database of 10,000 dogs would be significant for a researcher like Creevy. It would mean thousands of records of dogs that could be accessed by vets and their students. She said the database could be a useful training tool as well as a way to better provide more comprehensive diagnoses for dogs.
Think of this open database as a democratization of veterinary medicine, she said.
What would she like to see come out of this study 10 years down the line?
"Ten years down the line? I would love for us to finish the study of these 10,000 dog and then there would be the hope to expand our cohort to an even larger group. The thing I would love to see is my colleagues accessing this data set to answer their own questions," Creevy said. "If they have a question about an orthopedic disease or cancer in dogs, they could use this data for their work."
Promislow echoed her thoughts.
"First of all I hope that we will learn from this study... how genes and the environment effect outcomes -- health outcomes, behavioral outcomes -- in companion dogs and effectively transform how people think about science," he said. "If that's the biggest part of our success, I would be completely gratified."
Kaeberlein added that the project could help lead to better preventative solutions for diseases like cancer. The better doctors and researchers understand how age affects dogs over time, the better they could make targeted, preventative diagnoses.
"Improving our understanding of aging enables us to improve so many other dimension of health care for everyone," Creevy added.
Promislow and Kaeberlein set up a website, DogAgingProject.com, where people can send donations or learn about how to enroll their pets for the research.