When the news arrived that dog DNA testing would be made available, there was a mix of reactions. Some people were angry as communities were using it to see if pooches had a mix of any banned breeds. Some people were happy with the possibility of determining the appropriate disease prevention for their fur-baby. Still, some others were just curious as to what would show up in their mutt’s background.
Since humans and dogs share 84 percent of their DNA, whatever your initial reaction to doggy DNA testing, it is now evident that it is helping humans in a big way. I wasn’t one of the original adopters to jump into analyzing my dogs’ genetics when the first DNA tests kits appeared, but after newer companies like Embark took charge on improving the approach and making it more user-friendly, I could no longer stay away; I had to test it out.
Today, I see major benefits to ensuring progress in this field thanks for these companies like Embark that continue to invent. Not only does DNA testing helps our dogs in way of breeding out fatal diseases and allowing our pals to live longer, but it also provides major benefits for us, humans.
- Autoimmune Disease – People with Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, and Diabetes Type 1 have lives that are shaped and altered by their disease. The University of Melbourne Faculty of Veterinary Science is testing dogs that have autoimmune diseases. They are hoping to isolate not only the genes that cause autoimmune disorders, but also, what genes may offer immunity to these disorders. By then studying patterns in these genes, scientists may develop treatments for humans that prevent or better manage these illnesses.
- Eye Health – Many diseases of the eye affect both dogs and humans, like macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, and cataracts. Occurring in both humans and dogs, any advances on either side of the board will benefit the patients on the other side of the board. In fact, scientists are in the early testing phases of restoring sight in humans with retinitis pigmentosa using gene therapy discovered, in part, by testing canine genes. With the first round of testing showing positive results in some patients, the company is ready to move forward with the second phase of clinical testing.
- Mental Health – Most dogs have an innate instinct to turn to humans for help. When presented with a problem they can’t solve some dogs will keep trying, but some dogs look to a nearby human for a solution. By surveying the genes of both groups, scientists were able to find two genetic markers in dogs that are also linked to human behavioral disorders like autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD. This means that gene therapy studies can be performed on canines that can then be used to develop therapies that will benefit humans suffering from mental disorders.
- Cancer – Like in people, cancer numbers in dogs are on the rise, too. Cancer is the top killer of dogs over the age of 10 years old. To add to the similarities, some cancers in dogs are molecularly identical to some cancers in people. The results of drug trials in dogs are highly predictive of what the results will be in humans. An added bonus is that data collected in canine studies can rapidly get information to the FDA to quickly process applications for human trials. In fact, in 2017, a clinical trial for children with life-threatening cancers was fast-tracked because of the work already done on man’s best friend.
- Epilepsy – While dogs from lots of different breeds can suffer from epilepsy, some breeds are more prone to it than others. Scientists have found that pups from Miniature Wire-haired Dachshunds and those from the breed Lagotto Romagnolo have two different underlying genetic factors contributing to their disease. Another study using Rhodesian Ridgebacks yielded truly groundbreaking work. That study pinpointed a gene that has never been considered as a marker for epilepsy before.
- Birt-Hogg-Dubé Syndrome – This genetic disorder occurs in humans. It causes non-cancerous skin growths and lung cysts. It also causes kidney tumors that can be both benign or cancerous. It has been discovered that the gene that causes Birt-Hogg-Dubé Syndrome in humans also causes a similar disease, called RCND, in German Shepherds. The gene codes for a protein called folliculin that is associated with the cause of disease in both human and canine patients. The study helped to determine different versions of the gene one of which may directly contribute to these diseases.
After all the studies using human DNA and the studies involving mice and other lab animals, why are canine DNA studies so important? Well, there are a few reasons why the dog studies yield more advances in the human medical field.
- One reason cited for the canine studies becoming the preferred method of studying human genetic illness is because dogs have undergone centuries of selective breeding. While people were breeding dogs for desired characteristics in appearance and behavior, they were also inadvertently breeding in genetic diseases. This inbreeding creates a palette of DNA that is easier to wade through than the genetic diversity that other lab animals and people have.
- Humans cannot be easily observed in a laboratory setting, especially for things involving behavior. When emotional disturbances happen to people in a real-world setting it becomes even more difficult for researchers to identify the exact social situations and cues that trigger a behavior. On the other hand, dogs can be put in a group with other dogs, with people, or with a mix of both while still retaining most of their personality. These experiments yield truer responses than if they were done with human subjects.
- The lifespan of dogs (averaging 7 to 15 years depending on breed) allows for studies to be conducted in a way that could never be done with lab rats or humans. With lab animals such as rats and mice, the scientists must create the disease by injecting it into the animals being studied. With humans, it may be late in life before an illness activates and even if the disease presents early, it takes years to monitor progression and changes. With pups, a disease can be monitored from birth to death in a naturally occurring setting and in a relatively short amount of time.
- The last, and perhaps best reason, is that humans are more closely related to dogs than any other lab animal except monkeys. It takes less time to convert dog studies to human results because of this greater similarity, and as mentioned before, the more accurate the predictions, the faster companies can get FDA approval to begin human trials. The more accurate the side effects and benefits are predicted the better prepared the facilitators are to handle anything that may come up in the human trials. That means more comfort and more realistic goals for the people participating.
These are just a few of the areas where advances are being made in human healthcare from the study of canine DNA. With dog DNA, there is a lesser privacy risk than with human DNA, so there is a broader field of sequences to study. With Embark being the world leader in canine genetics and having developed the best dog DNA tests, taking charge to lead this new and exciting industry, encouraging pet owners fur further advancement in the field, we are in good hands.
If you would like to donate your dog’s DNA to help fight human illness there are several facilities that accept them. You can email the University of Melbourne Veterinary Clinic and Hospital. You can fill out this application for the Canine Health Information Center for a mail-in kit. You can also go here for information on how to donate DNA for dogs AND cats. If you don’t have a pet, but still would like to support the cause, click here to find out how to make a monetary donation to labs working to use dog DNA to fight human diseases.