With a few clicks on a keyboard, dog owners can enroll their pet in an ambitious and groundbreaking study to examine the aging process in dogs and how their health might be improved. The Dog Aging Project, as it is called, is being run by a consortium of more than two dozen universities around the world, including Princeton.
The goal, says Joshua Akey, a professor in the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, is to understand how dogs age, and how environmental factors affect that, in hopes of helping them live longer and healthier lives. Researchers also hope to learn more about how dogs evolved and were domesticated. Akey co-authored a paper in the February issue of Nature, which sets out the project’s goals and methodology.
“Dogs have a number of characteristics that make them a particularly good study model,” he tells PAW. They suffer from many of the same diseases that afflict humans, and also live in the same environments we do. By gaining insights into how those factors contribute to dog aging, researchers may learn something about how they affect human aging as well. Thanks to centuries of artificial selection and breeding, canine genetics are also much simpler than human genetics, and their lifespans are much shorter, both of which make them easier to study.
The key to the project is collecting data from as many dogs as possible, of all sizes, breeds, and backgrounds, from mastiffs to mutts. So far, more than 32,000 dogs from 50 states have been enrolled. Owners who wish to participate can register at the Dog Aging Project website (dogagingproject.org). They will then be asked to complete an extensive questionnaire detailing all aspects of their dog’s life and lifestyle — including diet, medication, and level of physical activity — and to provide copies of the dog’s medical records. Owners will also be asked to commit to providing updates on their dog throughout its lifetime. All data will be anonymized to protect privacy.
From the large initial data set, researchers will conduct several more focused surveys on smaller groups of dogs as well. They will ask up to 10,000 owners to provide samples of their dog’s DNA through a cheek swab to sequence the genomes of that group. Another group will be asked to have their veterinarian provide biospecimens such as fecal, urine, blood, and fur samples for more intensive study. Still another group will be part of a clinical trial to examine the effects of rapamycin, an anticancer drug in humans, on dog aging.
Finally, Akey says he is particularly intrigued by a plan to examine the DNA from about 300 of the oldest dogs in the study, the equivalent of human “super-centenarians,” in hopes of understanding the reason for their unusually long lifespans.
The Dog Aging Project, which was started in 2018 at the University of Washington (Akey was also one of the initial investigators), is supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging. Much of the data analysis is being done at Princeton by Akey and a small team of graduate students, postdocs, and support staff, who are busy crunching some of the numbers that are rolling in. All the data obtained in the Dog Aging Project will be open source, available to researchers around the world. Akey says he hopes that researchers will be able to release some of their first findings within the next year.
Akey, incidentally, is himself a dog owner: of Abby, a 5-year-old rescue, and Zoey, a 1-year-old purebred Lab. Both, naturally, are enrolled in the study. With luck, the information they are providing will help future generations of man’s best friend see their lives extended and improved.