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Old dogs, new tech

Speed read
  • Dogs are highly-variable animals that share our environment
  • We can learn a lot about human aging by studying our companion animals
  • The Dog Aging Project enlists citizen scientists to collect dog aging data for current and future researchers

Depending on who you ask, dogs and humans have been best friends for about 15,000 years. They’ve hunted with us, they’ve protected us, and they are now the most prolific consumers of belly rubs on the entire planet.

10,000 dogs. Learning the whys behind the length of dogs’ lifespans is the impetus for the largest research data-gathering project of its kind, the Dog Aging Project. Courtesy UW Medicine.

Though many people treat their dog as they would a child, we don’t share much in common with the physical appearance of our furry friends. But we do share the same living conditions.

“Dogs live in our environments, and they have a healthcare system that is almost as sophisticated as the human healthcare system. They get the same diseases as us,” says Daniel Promislow of the University of Washington. “We can learn a huge amount about aging in dogs by studying them, and what we learn about dogs is likely to also be helpful to their humans as well.” 

Promislow co-directs the Dog Aging Project, a study to better understand the effects of genes, lifestyle, and environment on various dogs. While the study is only taking data about our canine companions right now, it could help us better understand how the aging process itself works. 

Old dogs, new tricks

Discovering health and environmental factors linked to longer lifespans in dogs is a central piece of the Dog Aging Project. As Promislow points out, dogs have a lot to offer in terms of studying the variability of the aging process.

<strong>Relaxed or playful, short or tall, the dog world has them all.</strong> Dogs offer incredible variety in size, shape, and behavior, which makes them excellent candidates for a massive study in dog health and longevity. “Dogs are the most variable mammal on the planet, and all you have to do is go to a dog park and look around and you'll see the incredible variability of size and shape and behavior,” says Promislow. “It turns out they also vary in the diseases that they experience as they age, and how long they live.”

To understand everything they can about each individual pooch, the researchers ask owners a long list of questions. They want to know if the owner’s house is carpeted, what kind of tree coverage shades the backyard, about the quality of their air and water quality, and much more. 

One specific question the researchers want to answer has to do with the effects rapamycin has on the aging process. This is a drug generally prescribed to help people who have just had a transplant, but it has shown a connection to longer healthy lifespans in mice. While only 500 dogs in the project will be part of the double-blind rapamycin study, it could lead to a major breakthrough.

<strong>Dogs share the same environments</strong>, breathe the same air, and get the same diseases as their humans. Studying dog aging may also contribute to insights about longevity in people.So far, the overall project has recruited 80,000 people and their pets. Each one will be invited to fill out a survey answering hundreds of questions. Promislow expects the team will eventually process hundreds of terabytes of data—which is a pretty big bone to chew. 

Thankfully, the Dog Aging Project is receiving help.

“The Dog Aging Project is funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging to the University of Washington,” says Promislow. “But there are many other institutions around the country that are collaborating with us. One of them is the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT. They have developed a cloud-based computational platform that enables people to share large data sets in a secure way. All of our data will be going on to what's called the Terra platform at the Broad Institute.” 

Data collection services are provided through REDCap, a survey-building application that heavily focuses on protecting sensitive information. Promislow makes it clear that the security of user data is a fundamental priority of the Dog Aging Project.

An aging project for the ages

The Dog Aging Project’s scope and scale is already enormous. And though the current grant that funds the research is set to expire after five years, Promislow is confident that getting people excited about this project will extend its life well beyond that. 

“Generally, science happens in the lab, and the general public doesn't really know what is happening there,” says Promislow. “To be able to share our results with the people who are so generously providing us with the data is incredibly exciting.”

<strong>Donna and her dog Pablo</strong> signed up to be citizen scientists partly because she was curious about why smaller dogs age differently than larger ones. Courtesy Dog Aging Project. He continues, “In the long term, my hope is that the Dog Aging Project will endure for decades, that new cohorts of dogs will be enrolled, new generations of scientists will take over when those of us currently involved retire, and that this may be a long-term study.” 

The Dog Aging Project also ensures that researchers all over the world are able to access this data.

“We have a large team of about 50 people, but given how much data we'll be collecting, that's still not enough to even begin to address all the questions we can ask,” says Promislow. “It's important we make this data available to the scientific community around the world, and invite them to ask the questions they might be interested in.” 

Promislow continues: “One of the things that really makes the Dog Aging Project possible, and makes it as much fun as it is to work on, is that we have an incredible team of about 50 people all around the country who just put so much passion and experience and expertise into this project.” 

Over our 150 centuries together, dogs have come to rely on humans. We feed them, house them, and love them as best we can. The Dog Aging Project is a natural progression of this desire to care for our furry friends.

If she had thumbs and access to cloud computing, your dog would do the same for you.

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