The Morris Animal Foundation is working with Fisher BioServices and several other partners to take veterinary research—specifically, research into canine cancer—beyond the laboratory. Called the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, the project is the first study to go into operation under the administrative umbrella of the Foundation’s Canine Lifetime Health Project (CLHP). The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study will enroll 3,000 dogs before age two, and collect environmental and other data as well as biospecimens, throughout the dogs’ life.
Morris Animal Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports and funds veterinary medicine research for dogs, cats, horses and wildlife. Established in 1948, the Foundation’s activities have led to improved prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of illness afflicting animals around the world. The Foundation is currently sponsoring 33 individual studies in canine cancer alone, and an additional 11 studies on cancer in other species are also in progress. However, the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study takes the Morris Animal Foundation’s research program (and perhaps veterinary research in general) to a new level.
Bringing Biobanking and Epidemiological Tools to Veterinary Research
The CLHP is a database modeled after the Army of Women, a program of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. Like the Army of Women, Morris Animal Foundation created a database
where dog owners who are willing to participate—and have their dogs participate—in research can register their availability.
The database solicits all breeds and ages of dogs and eventually, like the Army of Women Program, approved researchers will be able to search the database to find the dogs needed for their project, thus eliminating a significant barrier in animal health research. The Golden Retriever’s Lifetime Study began with a pilot study of
50 owners of Golden Retrievers who had registered in the CLHP database; recruitment of the remaining 3,000 dogs through multiple channels began soon thereafter.
An owner enrolling their dog agrees to provide registration/ pedigree information, and also to complete a questionnaire about the dog online every year.
They must also select a veterinarian who will agree to participate, and visit the vet annually for physical examinations and collection of samples (blood, feces, urine, toenail clippings, and hair). Enrollment begins when the owner completes the initial questionnaire and then schedules an appointment with the dog’s veterinarian. New registrants are asked to wait until the puppy is at least six months old so that the questionnaire data and biospecimens reflect a uniform initial age and minimum maturity.
Because data and specimen collection for the 3,000 dogs in the Study will near completion in about 10 to 14 years, it is possible that Morris Animal Foundation’s efforts will yield critical information about cancer (as well as other canine health condition, such as hypothyroidism, renal failure, hip dysplasia, and epilepsy) within only seven to 10 years. Researchers will be specifically examining early obesity in the dogs and its relationship to cancer, diabetes and other health conditions.
Canine and Cancer
Cancer is common in dogs of all breeds, as in humans (cancer accounts for about 25 percent of deaths in dogs as a whole), but is responsible for more than half of deaths in Golden Retrievers. Why the rate is higher in Golden Retrievers is unknown, and research into the causes and treatment of cancer in this breed will benefit all dogs, as well as human cancer patients. Canine cancers have significant comparative value in investigating their counterparts among humans; it is suspected that the genetic factors associated with osteosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, and other cancers in dogs are the same as those associated with the disease in humans, and many new medicines developed for humans are first tested in dogs.
In addition, dogs can serve as a sentinel species: they share the same environment as humans, and because of their shortened lifespan, toxins and other environmental factors that cause illness will show up in dogs before humans. Thus any research into any canine illness is potentially beneficial to people.
Morris Animal Foundation President and CEO, Dr. David Haworth bought this puppy (Bridger) so he could participate in the study too. The Morris Animal Foundation is still seeking owners of Golden Retrievers to enroll themselves and their dogs in the study. Go to “http://www.caninelifetimehealth.org” for more information and to register.
After being accepted into the study, the owner receives a specimen collection kit to take to the veterinary clinic. The samples are then sent directly to the biobank for processing.The quality of the sample processing and biobanking storage services are critical, as the samples must be processed, stored and finally shipped to an investigator in a manner protects them from temperature excursions and preserves their biochemical integrity.
In addition, the biobank must ensure complete accuracy between the samples in storage and the data in the database. Fisher BioServices is processing and storing the biospecimens at their headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. For each dog entering the study, Fisher BioServices’ laboratory technicians extract a very pure, high quality DNA sample from whole blood, which is aliquoted and stored at -80°C. These DNA samples are suitable for the most sophisticated downstream laboratory assays by researchers looking for variants or anomalies in specific genes and/or gene combinations that may interact with each other and the environment to cause disease.
The laboratory is also preserving spots of whole blood on a 5x7 Whatman card, which allows storage of thousands of small blood samples at room temperature, in a small space. A small punch from one of the dried blood spots is sufficient to extract a DNA sample for certain genetic analyses. In addition to extracting and storing initial DNA samples for each dog, Fisher BioServices is also processing and “banking” the samples collected during each annual follow-up visit, including urine, feces, whole blood, serum, hair, and toenail clippings. Some of the blood taken at the annual visit is separated and the serum aliquoted and frozen in liquid nitrogen. The remaining whole blood and the urine samples are aliquoted and stored at -80°C. The hair, toenail clippings, and fecal samples are not processed but are also frozen at -80°C.
Do you have a dog participating in this study (or plan to) and would like to share your story? We'd love to hear about them! Feel free to use the comment section below.
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