Portrait of senior dog

Is there a secret to living not just a long life but a long and healthy life? It’s a question that sent National Geographic magazine across the globe in search of answers. Now scientists are searching for similar answers in dogs.

With the Dog Aging Project, researchers at the University of Washington hope to determine how to extend not just the canine life span but also health span, or the number of years free from chronic disease and disability.

Determining Why Some Dogs Age Better

As part of the university’s Healthy Aging and Longevity Research Institute, the Dog Aging Project will include the first national study that will follow pet dogs for their entire lives.

“Our goal is to measure a large number of biological and environmental factors, including the genomes for each of a large number of dogs,” Dr. Daniel Promislow, who is spearheading the study, says. With this information, the scientists hope to determine why some dogs live to a ripe old age relatively free of disease while others fall victim to organ failure, cancers and other life-shortening diseases.

The researchers plan to examine an exhaustive list of factors, including diet, exercise levels, genetics, molecular biology and aspects of behavior. They even intend to follow urban, suburban and rural dogs; measure air, water and soil quality; and determine the socioeconomic status of each dog’s household.

“With these many biological and environmental measures in hand, we will be able to determine how genes, environment and the interaction between the two shape aging and age-related disease, and to do so with a level of precision that has never been possible until now,” Dr. Promislow says. “Ultimately, this will allow us to develop a powerful ability to detect, diagnose, predict and prevent disease in our canine companions.”

But that’s just part of the goal; in the second phase of the aging study, these scientists think they can potentially add two to five or even more years of ball fetching and squirrel chasing to our dogs’ lives.

Testing an Anti-aging Drug

The aging study also includes a trial with rapamycin, an FDA-approved drug the researchers hope will not only extend life but delay the onset of chronic disease.

Currently used in high doses in human medicine to help prevent rejection after kidney transplants, the drug has been shown to extend life span in mice at lower doses, while delaying the onset of age-associated diseases, such as heart failure, cancer and declining cognitive function.

The researchers hope to test the medication on large-breed dogs who typically live eight or ten years by administering the medication in middle age. They’ll start with a short pilot study with a small group of dogs to evaluate its effects on the heart and immune system and to hopefully optimize dosing before launching a longer study.

“We expect that rapamycin will delay multiple age-related declines in function, including cardiac, cognitive and immune function,” Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, who is leading this portion of the study, says. “We also expect reduced age-related disease burden, particularly cancers, along with two or more years of increased life expectancy.”

Because rapamycin is off patent, most drug companies aren’t interested in funding the research. That means the researchers will need to raise around $15 million to fund the long-term study.

Although there are currently no plans to study the drug with other kinds of animals, it’s definitely a possibility. “If rapamycin works as well as we anticipate that it will in dogs, I certainly expect that it will be tested in cats soon thereafter,” Dr. Kaeberlein says.

Implications for Humans

Veterinarians and pet owners aren’t the only ones eyeing this research with interest. Because dogs succumb to many of the same age-related diseases that humans do, there is hope that if the drug succeeds in dogs, it may offer similar benefits for the growing population of aging baby boomers.

Already, a Novartis study showed that when rapamycin was given to elderly human patients, it enhanced their immune response to a flu vaccine.

Hoping for a Healthier Future

The Dog Aging Project is in the early stages, so it may be a while before we know whether the results will benefit our canine companions. 

Of course, no matter how long our dogs live, it’s never long enough. But it’s nice to imagine that someday, we could get a few more years to enjoy the thump of our dogs’ tails against the floor as they welcome us home.

More on Vetstreet: